Summit via Everett Collection
You can imagine that Renny Harlin, director and one quadrant of the writing team for The Legend of Hercules, began his pitch as such: We'll start with a war, because lots of these things start with wars. It feels like this was the principal maxim behind a good deal of the creative choices in this latest update of the Ancient Greek myth. There are always horse riding scenes. There are generally arena battles. There are CGI lions, when you can afford 'em. Oh, and you've got to have a romantic couple canoodling at the base of a waterfall. Weaving them all together cohesively would be a waste of time — just let the common threads take form in a remarkably shouldered Kellan Lutz and action sequences that transubstantiate abjectly to and fro slow-motion.
But pervading through Lutz's shirtless smirks and accent continuity that calls envy from Johnny Depp's Alice in Wonderland performance is the obtrusive lack of thought that went into this picture. A proverbial grab bag of "the basics" of the classic epic genre, The Legend of Hercules boasts familiarity over originality. So much so that the filmmakers didn't stop at Hercules mythology... they barely started with it, in fact. There's more Jesus Christ in the character than there is the Ancient Greek demigod, with no lack of Gladiator to keep things moreover relevant. But even more outrageous than the void of imagination in the construct of Hercules' world is its script — a piece so comically dim, thin, and idiotic that you will laugh. So we can't exactly say this is a totally joyless time at the movies.
Summit via Everett Collection
Surrounding Hercules, a character whose arc takes him from being a nice enough strong dude to a nice enough strong dude who kills people and finally owns up to his fate — "Okay, fine, yes, I guess I'm a god" — are a legion of characters whose makeup and motivations are instituted in their opening scenes and never change thereafter. His de facto stepdad, the teeth-baring King Amphitryon (Scott Adkins), despises the boy for being a living tribute to his supernatural cuckolding; his half-brother Iphicles (Liam Garrigan) is the archetypical scheming, neutered, jealous brother figure right down to the facial scar. The dialogue this family of mongoloids tosses around is stunningly brainless, ditto their character beats. Hercules can't understand how a mystical stranger knows his identity, even though he just moments ago exited a packed coliseum chanting his name. Iphicles defies villainy and menace when he threatens his betrothed Hebe (Gaia Weiss), long in love with Hercules, with the terrible fate of "accepting [him] and loving [their] children equally!" And the dad... jeez, that guy must really be proud of his teeth.
With no artistic feat successfully accomplished (or even braved, really) by this movie, we can at the very least call it inoffensive. There is nothing in The Legend of Hercules with which to take issue beyond its dismal intellect, and in a genre especially prone to regressive activity, this is a noteworthy triumph. But you might not have enough energy by the end to award The Legend of Hercules with this superlative. Either because you'll have laughed yourself into a coma at the film's idiocy, or because you'll have lost all strength trying to fend it off.
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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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I've had a bone to pick with American Idol for 11 seasons now. Without fail, the series continues to push mediocre singers through the audition process based purely on the fact that their back story provides a great example of inspiration or triumph. While Idol is congratulating itself for breaking down barriers and supporting folks who've been dealt extreme adversity, we're the ones forced to play the bad guy by noticing, hey, that guy with the terrible home life isn't a good singer, and isn't this a competition for amazing singers?
It's a vicious yearly cycle, and it's one that makes us all a little crazy every year. But this time, while some contestants may have ridden too far on the tails of their real life victories, as so many contestants have before them, at least these judges have the guts to nip the cycle in the bud before we're staring down the barrel of that long walk between the top 40 contestants and the top 24.Only those who deserve it should get to the point where Idol lets America decide.
The last thing we need is another judge breaking down Jennifer Lopez style at the final judges' deliberation as 2013's answer to Chris Medina walks away to sad, lonely music. And this year, we can thank the wonderful, talented, perfect Idol judge Nicki Minaj for keeping Hollywood week honest, even when it wasn't the popular or sweet, sugary thing to do. Nicki may tell everyone she loves them, but when it comes to dishing out the cold, hard truth, no one does it more accurately, fully, or respectfully than she does.
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And Nicki comes out swinging as soon as the first singer of the guys' Hollywood Solo Night steps on stage. Paul Jolley, the handsome young man from Tennessee sings "Blown Away" by Idol alum Carrie Underwood, and dressed in all white, Paul is a bit of a singing angel. He's cute, he's sweet, and he's got a good voice, however, Nicki hates everything about the way he presents himself to the judges. "Give us one minute of professionalism," she says. And she's not overreacting.
Paul comes onstage saying how he just hopes they like him because this is his dream, is an act of defeatism before he even opens his mouth that drives Nicki nuts. If he believes he should be there, he should show it onstage. And she's right... even if the woman judging contestants from behind a pair of dark sunglasses and a general hat is remarking on professionalism.
In Paul's judging group (Idol has done away with the cruel Hollywood week waiting room practice) are Lazaro Arbos, whose rendition of "The Edge of Glory" was technically good without hitting any of the high drama of Lady Gaga's powerhouse song, and Curtis Finch, who's earned my ardent dislike after his selfish group night behavior.
Lazaro and Paul are allowed to stay, and Curtis is willed by that power that be Mariah to stay forever in the presence of the judges. It's an exercise in being careful what one wishes for. If you want backstory to be second to talent, you've got to concede that Curtis belongs here. Even if he did act like a selfish child when his teammate fell ill during group performances. And damnit if he didn't just kill his run-happy cover of "Jar of Hearts," overacting and all.
Next up is someone the producers have clearly been hiding all competition: Devin Velez, who apparently got a standing O from Randy during the Hollywood week sudden death round.
The fact that we're just now meeting him could signal that he's going to be increasingly important in the coming weeks. Idol loves to save its top 24 candidates for Hollywood week reveals. And Devin's "What a Wonderful World" is beautiful, ending on a crystalline high falsetto note. Keith says this guy was born to sing, and despite his constant overzealous commentary that we can only assume comes from a need to keep up with Nicki and Mariah, it appears the country star might be very, very right. No sad story needed.
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Devin is followed by Gurpreet Singh Sarin, who gets down to "Georgia on My Mind." He seems a little uncomfortable holding his guitar while perched on a tiny bar stool, and his vocals aren't exemplary, but his sound and style are slightly off in a way that seems deliberate.
Cortez Shaw gives another off-key performance, saved only by his pretty face and his suave stage presence. We can do better than this.
He could be a nice singer with the right vocal coach, but as for now, I'm not sure why he keeps making it through. But Cortez isn't the problem. At least there's some level of appeal to Cortez, even if his off-pitch moments drive me batty. He has some level of star quality about him.
Matheus Fernandes, however, does not. He continually tells stories to the camera about howIdolis his first chance to sing in front of others and in front of famous judges. He makes an excuse during his audition that he's never sung with a band before.
Yet, he's somehow forgetting the fact that we all have the ability to access Google, even if Nev from Catfish makes it sound like some high-tech mystifying secret. It's not hard for your average Internet user to find out that Matheus was on half a season of The Glee Project and that he sang many songs with backing of all sorts.
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He's milking his height for all its worth. And when he approaches the mic to deliver his big solo, he makes not one, but two references to his height as a means of securing his facade as a miracle contestant plucked from obscurity and fighting the odds. And when he finally opens his mouth to sing, the result isn't pleasant.
His version of "Stronger" by Kelly Clarkson held all the playacted emotion of the closing scene of Hamlet in a middle school play, and none of the vocal quality of a singer who deserves a spot onAmerican Idol. When Matheus comes back with excuses about the band, forcing out tears like one might force flavor out of a slice of lime, Nicki, my girl, lays the harsh, harsh truth on him. She notes the various times he's referenced his height before delivering a performance and tells him what we're all thinking, "Sometimes things can go from being inspiring to becoming you wanting a pity party," she says.
Now, her next piece of advice is a puzzle to me, because winter apparently hates my connection to Time Warner Cable, but what I pieced together is something along the lines of, when you're great, no one is going to care about how tall you are, so stop talking about it and just be a good singer. And if that's not what Nicki said and my cable glitch kept me from some other glorious truth, I'm taking that observation as my own.
Next: The necessary cruelty takes another casualty.
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[Photo Credit: Fox]
When it comes time for another round of should I stay or should I go (now), Gurpreet, Devin, and Cortez are safe and Matheus is sent packing. It would have been a great time to set aside our differences and feel some sympathy for the guy, but even in his exit interview, he's crying and blaming not knowing how to sing with a band for the fact that he gambled by putting his unique body type ahead of his talent and lost.
But Matheus' mistake doesn't seem to teach the other contestants a lesson. Nicholas Mathis kicks off the next string of solos with "Locked Out of Heaven" by Bruno Mars and it is basically terrible. I really wanted the sweet father of two, was was so considerate of his and Curtis Finch's sick teammate during group performances, to be amazing. He simply wasn't.
And when Keith asked him what was going on, he simply started crying and saying he missed his kids. It's a natural human emotion to miss one's kids, but as Keith points out, artists sacrifice time with their families and those they love very often in order to experience the sheer validation and value of expressing oneself through music.
If Nicholas can't get through an audition without allowing his misgivings about missing his daughter, then he clearly shouldn't be a famous singer or even a contestant on this show; for him, the priority is getting home to his kids. It doesn't make sense for him to stay, when he's not able to give his all to the competition, whether or not it's for a sweet, family-oriented reason.
Of course, Keith twists the knife a little when he tells Nicholas he was "chasing the song" instead of chasing the dream, and Nicholas is a generally sweet guy, so it's hard to see him so torn up over losing out on his dream.
Nicki's precious Papa Peachez is the next to take the stage, telling cameras beforehand that lots of people who try out forIdolare "puppets" and he's not one of them, before taking the stage for "You and I."
His voice defies logic and it's still got that unique, somewhat confounding appeal, but Peachez appears to be sleeping through his own performance. It's something Nicki, who's gone out on a limb for the contestant multiple times, doesn't take kindly to. "That flame is completely burnt out," she says, disappointing that he "let the competition suck it out of you."
But Nicki's not just disappointed, she's angry, turning to her fellow judges and letting a "What the f**k was that?" slip. But who can blame her? She told him not to be so complacent in the competition, and if anything, he turned the complacency up a notch.
That drama is followed by Jimmy Smith, a '90s country superstar out of a Lifetime movie, with "Landslide." It's nice, but he's still missing the star quality they said he was missing during group performances. Mariah says she was wowed. I was not.
But when the eliminations were doled out, Jimmy was safe along with Johnny Keyser and Vincent Powell and it was Nicholas and Peachez who were doing the walk of shame.
After adjusting to the new losses, we move onto Nick Boddington, who was never very interesting before this solo night performance. He decides to sing while playing the piano and it really works.
His unique look, along with his pleasant, nasal quality of his voice, and his all-or-nothing approach to the competition work in his favor, despite the fact that His falsetto range is a little shaky.
Any quirk Nick might have earned, however, is outdone by Charlie Askew, the funny little guy in a shiny suit and blue track shoes. Nicki is obsessed with him, and truth be told, I kind of love him too.He bravely opens his cover of "Somebody That I Used to Know" by pulling a Taylor Swift and connecting the song to his lost love while the band plays the intro; clearly, this kid is a natural showman.
And while it's a tired song, Charlie kind of kills it. He can't reach every high note, which is somewhat worrisome as the competition continues, but he's a natural weirdo onstage and he's infinitely lovable. When the judges reveal who's staying, it's Nick, Charlie "So Weird It's Art" Askew, JDA, and Mathenee who are going through.
Added to that pile of victors are Burnell Taylor and Marvin Calderon who both take on "Jar of Hearts" shortly after Curtis' performance. Marvin gets good news, but it's hard to be wowed by his rendition of the song after Curtis went all gospel on it and Burnell gave it such delicate, emotional nooks and crannies we didn't even know it had during his solo performance. Burnell is more likely the one of watch of the two.
And with that, the judges were back to delivering bad news, even if traditional Idol logic defied it. Micah Johnson, the guy whose speech impediment is completely gone as long as he's singing, takes on "I Told You So" by Randy Travis and technically, everything about it is great.
It just wasn't awe-inspiring.He played by the rules and hit the right notes when he was supposed to, but there was nothing about the performance that made it unique or exemplary aside from the fact that it is possible despite his personal troubles.
Rather than subject Micah to the group elimination, the judges send him home right then and there. And as if it wasn't already hard enough to turn this poor guy down, he's got a ridiculously upbeat attitude about the whole experience afterward, saying he's thankful for the opportunity and that it will be alright because he's healthy and employed. It's a start contrast to folks like Nicholas who use their last moments on television to disparage their competition mates and cry about how unfair the judges are.
Before the episode comes to a close, we learn that Gabe the baker from Chicago, Sanni the young phenom, and Nate the adorable sign language teacher were also eliminated, but that's not the end of it.
The judges, even with all their harsh (and by some viewers' standards heartless) cuts, still let too many guys stay on past the solo round. Where there should be 20 there are 28, and so after the girls do their (hopefully more dramatic) take on Hollywood week, eight more guys are getting cut.
Of course, it would make sense to make the judges do their job right now since they screwed up, but no. The poor eager singers (and the eager-ish viewers at home) have to wait until next week to find out who makes the surprise second cut.
We would be more excited, but Ryan Seacrest dangles this carrot of a teaser in front of our faces like we don't know what he's up to. We see you, Idol, and this cliffhanger isn't going to make up for a wildly lackluster Guys' Hollywood Week.
All we can do is hope that the girls can deliver where the men failed, and from the looks of the promo, girls are the necessary ingredient for a Heejun-less Hollywood week.
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[Photo Credit: Michael Becker/Fox]
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