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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There's probably still someone somewhere that would fall for one of Sacha Baron Cohen's weird and wooly scenarios but let's face the facts: the days when Ali G. could snag an interview with Pat Buchanan or Gore Vidal are long gone. 2009's Bruno definitely let some steam out of Borat's tires not to mention the ensuing lawsuits. But it's refreshing to see Cohen and his Borat/Bruno cohort director Larry Charles flex their muscles in the fictional universe of The Dictator a vehicle that doesn't skimp on their signature cringe-worthy humor.
The world of The Dictator gives them the leeway to create crazy spectacles — at one point Cohen's General Aladeen rides down Fifth Avenue on a camel surrounded by a giant motorcade. Having a plot helps too; although part of the genius of Sacha Baron Cohen's schtick is how the viewer is made culpable by proxy by our amusement and horror at how he tricks and torments people who aren't in on the joke The Dictator continues the self-reflexive satirical bite. We're certainly not off the hook. Aladeen says and does truly outrageous things but they're also exaggerations of the world we live in. It might be a stretch to call Sacha Baron Cohen the British Lenny Bruce or George Carlin in a face merkin but rest assured that no topic is off limits. If you are offended by jokes about abortion rape feminists body hair race religion politics STDs war crimes ethnic cleansing necrophilia and/or bestiality don't even bother. However if you like the kind of comedy that makes you hide your face in your hands feeling like each laugh is being pried from you against your will you're in business.
Cohen eats up the screen as both General Aladeen and his incredibly dumb body double; the latter prefers the intimate company of one of his goats to a human while the former is a fairly stupid ruthless dictator whose own people are so disloyal to him that they actually ignore his commands to execute people. (He really likes to execute people.) When he arrives in New York City to attend a summit at the UN his uncle Tamir (Ben Kingsley) has the two switched so he can easily manipulate the "General" into signing a treaty to make Wadiya a democracy and reap the financial benefits. Aladeen finds refuge with Zoe a hairy-pitted activist who thinks he's a political dissident and is excited to be able to give him a safe haven in her touchy-feely Brooklyn grocery co-op. Instead of being typecast as another blonde dummy Anna Faris is finally given room to play as the wide-eyed naïf who takes Aladeen's very serious statements as jokes or simple miscommunications. She's a great foil to Baron Cohen who is easily half a foot taller than she is and has a wolfish grin. Their banter is often the most politically incorrect of the bunch but also the funniest.
Alas the plot. It's a bare bones situation to get a very broad character from A to B. Aladeen is obviously an outlandish mishmash of modern dictators; he spouts racist misogynist rhetoric endlessly and after a while...yeah we get it. However like all of Sacha Baron Cohen's humor The Dictator also takes a direct shot at Western countries (specifically the United States) which would be all fine and dandy if he didn't wedge an expository speech in about it as well. The problem with making a traditional narrative movie is that with some exceptions you've got to play within the guidelines. The Dictator isn't trying to do anything fancy; all it needs a few big beats and a neat ending to wrap it all up. It doesn't quite manage to tie it all together in a way that makes The Dictator more than an hour and a half or so of laughing and cringing.
Besides Faris and Kingsley there are a number of cameos by a very wide variety of comics and actors. Megan Fox plays herself Kevin Corrigan appears as a creepy dude who works at the co-op John C. Reilly is a racist security guard and Fred Armisen runs an anti-Aladeen café in New York's Little Wadiya district. The very funny Jason Mantzoukas has a large role as Nadal the former head of rocket science who was supposedly executed for not making Aladeen's nuclear warhead pointy. It's a good ensemble and hopefully Sacha Baron Cohen's next feature-length film will build on The Dictator's weaknesses.
Every year around this time, the networks go crazy announcing new shows and new faces as the hope of their impending fall seasons, but no major network has more hope or more riding on these announcements that the fourth place NBC. Just yesterday, they released video previews of their slew of new comedies and dramas that aim to take them in a new direction and we've got them all line up here with a little bit of context and few opinions.
We're looking for potential here, and while a few have some real promise, there are just as many that aren't so lucky.
Starring: Hank Azaria and Kathryn Hahn
Basics: Two recently single Hollywood agents commit the ultimate co-worker sin (yep, we're talking about sex) and have to deal with it in this workplace comedy. Of course, one sexual encounter undoubtedly leads to another and with that comes a big ol' mess.
Why: Despite the annoying presence of Natasha Leggero, this show rides on Hank Azaria, which is a pretty good person to weigh your hopes and dreams upon. The biggest hurdle I see at the outset is the chemistry between Helen (Hahn) and Alex (Azaria). Even accidental friend with benefits have some sort of sexual tension and since this is what the show is about, let's hope that chemistry is just undergoing a few growing pains. Also on the positive side is that the writer for the show, John Enbom, also wrote for Party Down, which didn't last but was an excellent short-lived workplace comedy.
Starring: Whitney Cummings, Chris D'Elia, Zoe-Lister Jones
Basics: Comedienne Whitney Cummings brings her perspective on love to the small screen in a sitcom that finds her character Whitney and her boyfriend Alex doing anything it takes to keep from becoming a typical boring couple, including refusing to get married and keeping it fresh with botched attempts to spice things up.
Why: Take a look at this clip and you'll see that while some folks may love Cummings as a standup comedian, she doesn't really hold her own when it comes to scripted television. That's a problem when the show is all about her. D'Elia and Jones try to offset Cummings' awkward delivery, but if the writing doesn't tighten up, it won't be enough.
Starring: David Giuntoli, Russell Hornsby
Basics: Detective Nick Burkhardt finds that he can see things others can't, like a man turning into a violent troll or a pretty woman becoming a hag in an instant. It turns out he's one of a group of hunters called Grimms who must keep the real world safe from these fairy tale villains.
Potential: Not Bad
Why: If you watch these previews, you might note a sense of familiarity. That's because this series comes from the guys behind Buffy and Angel. While it won't be winning any Emmys, it looks to have the potential to capture those Buffy fans who've been dealing with the hole the long-running series left when it ended. Whether or not it succeeds in this endeavor lies on the show's brand new star, but let's hope there's more to him than what we see in these clips.
The Playboy Club
Starring: Eddie Cibrian, Amber Heard, David Krumholtz
Basics: Hoping to nab a piece of the 60s fad started by Mad Men, NBC introduces this salacious soap set in the original Playboy Club in Chicago, complete with sex, mob action, secret pasts and those classic bunny suits.
Why: Cibrian's Nick Dalton is no Don Draper and the intrigues are certainly low brow compared to the ups and downs on the leading 60s drama, Mad Men, but this show has enough sex appeal and intrigue (like when Heard's character kills a guy with her stiletto; yikes) to potentially ensnare a few viewers. Plus, Cibrian's own tabloid exploits coupled with the show's famed nudity clause are enough to draw at least a little curiosity.
Starring: Maria Bello
Basics: Maria Bello takes on a role originally held by Helen Mirren in the British version. She's a "tough-as-nails" detective determined to best the rest of the members of the department's boys club.
Potential: Not great
Why: Bello's not lacking the leading lady ability, but the show does rely heavily on a few tired stereotypes -- the hard-working woman who doesn't take shit from anyone, isn't appreciated by the men around her, but has that special, all-knowing womanly touch. The show as a whole looks like it wasn't just thrown together, but I just wish it didn't feel like Law and Order meshed with The Closer. Then again, with Kira Sedgwick finishing her last season, folks may be looking for another lady to fill that void.
Up All Night
Starring: Christina Applegate, Will Arnett, Maya Rudolph
Basics: Reagan and Chris (Applegate and Arnett) find themselves with an unexpected bundle of joy and a whole bunch of responsibilities they aren't ready for. Flipping the stereotypes, Reagan goes back to the office while Chris plays stay-at-home dad.
Why: Not only does the show have a killer trio at its center, but we get Will Arnett as a stay-at-home dad. How can that not be great? Plus, it looks like it might have a little more bite than Arnett's last sitcom attempt, Running Wilde, which was just a little too sweet.
Starring: Jason Isaacs, Wilmer Valderrama
Basics: After a terrible car accident, Detective Michael Britten wakes up in two separate realities: one in which his son survived the accident and he lost his wife, and the other the reverse. When he goes to sleep in one reality the other starts and vice versa, but eventually the cases he works on start to overlap in each reality and it begins to weigh on him.
Why: It's not exactly the Inception-style drama they've been promising, but it's certainly something the promises to be intriguing, enthralling and even eye-opening. Yes, Valderrama is a part of it, which may seem like a drawback, but Isaacs looks to carry this very original story well. It's only too bad we'll have to wait until midseason to see it.
Are You There Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea
Starring: Laura Prepon, Chelsea Handler
Basics: Based on Chelsea Handler's life and best-selling novel, the show follows Laura Prepon's Chelsea Handler reincarnate, Chelsea Newman, as she attempts to get her life back together after getting a DUI. Chelsea works at the local bar with a few other fiery folks and spews the same jokes you'll find on Chelsea Lately.
Potential: Not Great
Why: Well, I say "not great" because from the looks of these previews, the show ain't great. It's just the same typical Handler jokes we've heard time and again, just delivered with a little less oomph from Prepon, who I want desperately to like. Sure, it's a nice shock to see Handler playing the super straight-laced sister to herself (yeah, that's who she plays), but that could get old really quick. Then again, the woman's fans are pretty rabid, so we may see this sitcom stick around.
Starring: Katherine McPhee, Debra Messing, Anjelica Houston, Jack Davenport
Basics: The show follows a young woman as she chases her dream of becoming a Broadway star and a songwriting duo as they put on a new production about Marilyn Monroe. Singing, dancing and a whole lotta real life problems ensue.
Why: It looks to be exactly what we've been promised: grown up Glee. Take out most of the camp, add a little more reality and two thumbs up from Steven Spielberg (who produces the show) and we just may have a hit...that is if Glee doesn't ruin the idea of musical theater for audiences with this awful second season.
Starring: Laura Parham, Jessica St. Clair
Basics:Two best friends ended up different sides of the country, but when one ends up getting divorced, she moves back to New York and in with her old friend. Their friendship gets back on track as the newly single Jessica tries to regain her singlehood. It's just not great news for Lennon's live-in boyfriend who starts to feel the pressure of this house guest's constant presence.
Potential: Not bad
Why: Unlike the other lady-friendly comedies NBC has on deck -- Are You There Vodka? and Whitney -- this show actually feels genuine and modern in a way that other two are attempting and failing. The only worry I have here is that it won't catch on with viewers, but I think it certainly has potential to be a cute show.
The God of Legion secular Hollywood’s latest Biblically-inspired action flick is old-school an angry spiteful Almighty with a penchant for Old Testament theatrics. Fed up with humanity’s decadent warmongering ways He’s decided to pull the plug on the whole crazy experiment and start over from scratch.
Fortunately for us the God of Legion is also a rather lazy fellow. Instead of doing the apocalyptic work himself and wiping us out with a giant flood which worked perfectly well last time He opts to delegate the task to His army of angels — a questionable strategy that starts to fall apart when the archangel charged with leading the planned extermination Michael (Paul Bettany) refuses to comply.
Michael who unlike his boss still harbors affection for our sorry species abandons his post and descends to earth where inside the swollen belly of Charlie (Adrianne Palicki) an unwed mother-to-be working as a waitress in an out-of-the-way diner sits humanity’s lone hope for survival. Why is this particular baby so important? Is it the one destined to lead us to victory over Skynet? Heaven knows — Legion reveals little details its script devoid of actual scripture. What is clear is that God’s celestial hitmen want the kid whacked before it’s born.
But Michael won’t let humanity fall without a fight. Armed with a Waco-sized arsenal of assault weapons he hunkers down with the diner’s patrons a largely superfluous collection of thinly-sketched caricatures from various demographic groups led by Dennis Quaid as the diner’s grizzled owner Tyrese Gibson as a hip-hop hustler and Lucas Black as a simple-minded country boy.
Together they mount a heroic final stand against hordes of angels who’ve taken possession of “weak-willed” humans turning kindly old grandmas and mild-mannered ice cream vendors into snarling ravenous foul-mouthed beasts. They descend upon the ramshackle diner in a series of full-frontal assaults commanded by the archangel Gabriel (Kevin Durand) the George Pickett of End of Days generals.
Beneath its superficial religious facade Legion is really just a run-of-the-mill zombie flick a Biblical I Am Legend. Bettany an actor accustomed to smaller dramatic roles in films like A Beautiful Mind and The Da Vinci Code looks perfectly at ease in his first major action role wielding machine guns and bowie knives with equal aplomb. Conversely first-time director Scott Stewart a former visual effects artist does little to prove himself worthy of such a promotion serving up some impressive CGI work but not much else worthy of note.