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 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.
S11E2: Stop two on the American Idol audition train is Pittsburgh – and because of Fox’s new series The Finder we only get an hour of auditions. I’m going to go ahead and assume the shortened timeslot is the reason behind the lack of the usual dose of crazies. We’re introduced to the steel city the only possible: with Wiz Khalifa’s “Black and Yellow” playing over the montage of contestants. Ryan Seacrest’s voiceover tells us that this is the “city of champions” and he may be right about the sports teams, but as for Idol, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. These are just the auditions, if anything, Pittsburgh is the city of people waving crinkly, yellow pieces of paper (with promise)!
“I think you could be an American Idol.” –Steven
This poor guy comes in, sees the other great singers and immediately feels inadequate. That typical Idol goofball music was playing in the background, so I feared they were starting the night off with a joke, but then again he was so humble. The people they make fun of are rarely humble. The Korea native sang “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You” by Michael Bolton and he was wonderful and even a little soulful. Clearly he gets the ticket to Hollywood.
”You are crazy.” –Randy
Age 26 This guy is a born and raised performer, singing onstage with his family since he was two, so of course he’s going to be a complete and total ham. He sings the theme song from Family Matters because he’s just that cocky. It would seem he has license to be cocky because the guy can sing – and scat. He gets a golden ticket, so maybe we’ll get to see him sing the theme song from Full House next.
“She sings better when I’m planking.” –Patty the Pittsburgh Planker
Some woman who claims to be famous in Pittsburgh for planking attempts to steal her sister’s thunder by planking all over her audition. Patty even planks while her sister sings because she’s either insane or she thinks they’re beating the system and getting her sister more air time, which might be true. Good thing Samantha can actually sing. She does “Like I’ve Never Loved at All” by Faith Hill and it’s pretty, plain, and simple. She’s strong and Randy calls her voice pure, but I call it average. She gets a yes as Carrie Underwood’s “Flat on The Floor” plays in the background because the producers have been waiting to use that song in a literal sense and Patty The Planker answered their prayers.
“That was like Jamiroquai and Justin Timberlake had a baby?” –JLo
This jobless kid from New York spends time he could use to get a job singing silly songs in Union Square. So naturally, he spends 9 hours on a bus to get to Pittsburgh and audition for American Idol with a diddy he wrote on that same bus. He’s got serious pipes, but the tone is obnoxious and screechy, still they love him and he gets a ticket through to Hollywood. I fear he’s going to be the James Durbin of Season 11.
“He’s cute, look how cute he is.” –JLo
Apparently, all you have to do to “look like Justin Bieber” is get the right hair cut and be 15 years old with a decent singing voice. But, Eben is sweet and humble, calling the audition a privilege (you mean taking off days of school or work to audition for a singing contest that doesn’t guarantee financial success simply because you have a dream to sing is a luxury? Imagine that). I keep raining on this kid’s parade, but he was actually a pretty decent, sweet little singer. He tries out “Ain’t No Sunshine” and while he doesn’t really have the ability to give it any soul, he does pretty well. He gets a ticket to Hollywood.
“I dropped out of high school. This is an all or nothing thing.” –Travis Orlando
I can’t remember why Travis didn’t make it originally, but the judges insist his voice has gotten stronger, and that they need to hear more of what he’s got. But wait, you can’t dismiss him that easily; he’s got a sob story. His mother ditched his family and now he, his sick dad and his brother live in a shelter. His dad is on dialysis, his brother is in college and he quit high school to do Idol. Personally, I think that auditioning for a show that hasn’t turned out a real star in years instead of finishing one last year of high school is just a little misguided. Luckily for Travis, he gets a “yes.”
“Some kinda magic.” –Steven
Erica Van Pelt
This girl is a Mobile DJ and Wedding Singer, the first of which is a career I didn’t think was actually a thing. There are no gimmicks here, so let’s just get to the goods. She sings “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” and sounds a little Joss Stone. She does a little too much of the Christina Aguilera hand and matching head bob, but that usually dies out eventually. She also gets a yes, and continues the streak of winner after winner.
“You ever seen Shrek? I’m going to sing the Hallelujah song that plays right through there.” –Shane Bruce
But it had to end somewhere. Next we meet a young guy who actually likes working in a coal mine. They ruined the surprise of whether he was going to be able to sing or if he’d sound like a monkey being beaten with a feral cat by showing him singing to his work mates, but that doesn’t mean he’s good. He says he’s going to sing some song from Shrek - oh that “song from Shrek” that was written by Leonard Cohen and famously sung by Jeff Buckley and later Rufus Wainwright? His knowledge of music history isn’t the only fumble, he screws up the high notes in the song. Jennifer and Randy tell him to work on it and come back, but Steven tells him sometimes “routine is the secret of life” going on about how being a rock star is his path, but it isn’t for everyone else.
“Music and my husband saved my life.” –Hallie Day
The last contestant of the night is a waitress and a newlywed. She’s bubbly and blonde, so it seems this will be an easy little trip to yellow, crinkly paperville, but nope. She’s the last contestant, and typically these folks have terrible problems in their lives. She moved to New York at 15 to be in a girl group, but she ended up broke and drug addict. Her parents were absent, and the result was extremely low self esteem. She tried to commit suicide, but she lived and then met her husband, Ryan, who gave her the will to live. Normally, I’d say this is overkill, but it’s pretty hard to say a story like that is sensationalized. A story like that just is. She sings “I Will Survive” and while I appreciate the sentiment, the song choice was a little cheesy. Still, she’s a real singer with a strong, smoky voice. The judges all agree that she’s Idol material – and so do I.
All in all the judges handed out 38 tickets in Pittsburgh and snagged a potential winner. It’s a pretty good showing if you ask me. Who do you think was better, Savannah’s Phillip Phillips or Hallie Day? (I can certainly tell you which one has a better stage name.) Let me know in the comments or get at me on Twitter. @KelseaStahler
Enigmatic and deliberate Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy makes no reservations while unraveling its heady spy story for better or worse. The film based on the bestselling novel by John Le Carre is purposefully perplexing effectively mirroring the central character George Smiley's (Gary Oldman) own mind-bending investigation of the British MI6's mole problem. But the slow burn pacing clinical shooting style and air of intrigue only go so far—Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy sports an incredible cast that can't dramatically translate the movie's impenetrable narrative. Almost from the get go the movie collapses under its own weight.
After a botched mission in Hungary that saw his colleague Jim (Mark Strong) gunned down in the streets Smiley and his boss Control (John Hurt) are released from the "Circus" (codename for England's Secret Intelligence Service). But soon after Smiley is brought back on board as an impartial observer tasked to uncover the possible infiltration of the organization. The former agent already dealing with the crippling of his own marriage attempts to sift through the history and current goings on of the Circus narrowing his hunt down to four colleagues: Percy aka "Tinker" (Toby Jones) Bill aka "Tailor" (Colin Firth) Roy aka "Soldier" (Ciaran Hinds) and Toy aka "Poor Man" (David Dencik). Working with Peter (Benedict Cumberbatch) a conflicted younger member of the service and Ricki (Tom Hardy) a rogue agent who has information of his own Smiley slowly uncovers the muddled truth—occasionally breaking in to his own work place and crossing his own friends to do so.
Describing Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as dense doesn't seem complicated enough. The first hour of the monster mystery moves at a sloth's pace trickling out information like the tedious drips of a leaky faucet. The talent on display is undeniable but the characters Smiley included are so cold that a connection can never be made. TTSS sporadically jumps around from past to present timelines without any indication: a tactic that proves especially confusing when scenes play out in reoccurring locations. It's not until halfway through that the movie decides to kick into high gear Smiley's search for a culprit finally becoming clear enough to thrill. A film that takes its time is one thing but Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy does so without any edge or hook.
What the movie lacks in coherency it makes up for in style and thespian gravitas. Director Tomas Alfredson has assembled some of the finest British performers working today and they turn the script's inaccessible spy jargon into poetry. Firth stands out as the group's suave slimeball a departure from his usual nice guy roles. Hardy assures us he's the next big thing once again as the agency's resident moppet a lover who breaks down after a romantic fling uncovers horrifying truth. Oldman is given the most difficult task of the bunch turning the reserved contemplative Smiley into a real human. He half succeeds—his observational slant in the beginning feels like an extension of the movie's bigger problems but once gets going in the second half of the film he's quite a bit of fun.
Alfredson constructs Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy like a cinematic architect each frame dripping with perfectly kitschy '70s production design and camera angles that make the spine tingle. He creates paranoia through framing similar to the Coppola's terrifying The Conversation but unlike that film TTSS doesn't have the characters or story to match. The movie strives to withhold information and succeeds—too much so. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy wants us to solve a mystery with George Smiley but it never clues us in to exactly why we should want to.