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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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.
Top Story: Aaliyah Negligence Suit Settled
The parents of R&B singer Aaliyah reached an undisclosed settlement on Thursday in a negligence lawsuit over her death in a 2001 plane crash, the AP reports. Attorneys for Aaliyah's parents, Diane and Michael Haughton, filed a notice in federal court to say the case has been settled with an agreement to keep details confidential. The parents sued plane operator Blackhawk International Airways Corp., which did not have permission from the Bahamas for commercial flights. According to investigators, the chartered Cessna 402B carrying Aaliyah and eight others was overloaded by 700 pounds when it crashed after takeoff on a flight from Marsh Harbour in the Bahamas to the Miami suburb of Opalocka.
Jury OK With Manson Crotch-Rubbing
A U.S. District Court jury in St. Paul, Minnesota, dismissed a civil suit Monday brought by a security guard against Marilyn Manson after the shock rocker rubbed his crotch against the guard's head during a concert at the Orpheum Theater in Minneapolis in October 2000. According to Reuters, the jury agreed with Manson's position that the contact between him and the guard was part of his stage show and was neither offensive nor harmful. "The path to truth is obscured by frivolous lawsuits, but it's lit by the objectivity of a jury that sees the difference between entertainment and assault," Manson said in a statement. "I feel completely vindicated and I'd like to thank the jury and judge for their thoughtful verdict."
Mark Wahlberg Becomes Proud Papa
Mark Wahlberg, 32, and his longtime companion, model Rhea Durham, became the parents of a baby girl on last Tuesday. The AP reports Ella Rae Wahlberg was born Sept. 2 at 4 a.m. at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles and weighed 7 pounds, 4 ounces. Coincidentally, Ella was born the same day that Wahlberg's older sister, Deborah E. Donnelly-Wahlberg, died. The cause of death was unspecified but reports say Donnelly-Wahlberg went to the hospital for what she thought was a kidney stone and later died of a possible of a heart attack.
Matt LeBlanc and Wife Expecting
In more baby news, Friends star Matt LeBlanc and his wife, Melissa, who were married in May, are expecting. A publicist for the 36-year-old actor told the AP Monday the baby is expected in mid-March. It will be LeBlanc's first child; Melissa has two children from a previous marriage.
Hey Arnold, David Blaine Got Egged Too!
Magician David Blaine, who is spending 44 days without food in a glass box suspended from a crane over the Thames River in London, is getting anything but a warm reception. London's Evening Standard Monday reported yesterday that some Londoners are bored with the illusionist's latest challenge and are trying to devise ways of breaking his spirit. "We were watching him at home on TV and it was really dull so we thought we would come down and liven things up. I wanted to wake him up," one man told the paper. Since Blaine began his stunt Friday, he has been pelted with eggs, taunted with the smell of fish and chips and woken up by a man banging a drum.
Paramount Gets a Slam-O from Wham-O
Toy company Wham-O Inc. filed a federal suit Monday against Paramount Pictures claiming its trademarked yellow waterslide was used in the movie Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star without permission and depicted misuse of its product, Reuters reports. In a scene that appears in the film's trailer, star David Spade's character launches himself belly first across a dry Slip 'N Slide then rolls over with red welts on his chest, crying "Oooooh, it stings!" In another scene, Spade douses the slide with vegetable oil and slides headfirst into a fence. Wham-O also wants the movie to carry a "don't-try-this-at-home" disclaimer.
Nazi-era German Filmmaker Dead at 101
Adolf Hitler's filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl--the last of Germany's famous Nazi-era figures--died Monday night at her home near Starnberger Lake south of Munich, Germany, the AP reports. She was 101. Riefenstahl made powerful propaganda films for Hitler and spent the rest of her active life protesting she should not be condemned for work that was inspired by art and not politics. She won awards at the Venice and Paris film festivals in the 1930s for her documentary Triumph of the Will, which highlighted the eerie opulence of the Nazi Party's 1934 Nuremberg Rally. She was then commissioned to make the groundbreaking Olympia, the official film of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which recorded an event that Hitler hijacked to showcase National Socialism.
Role Call: Roman Polanski Takes on Oliver Twist
Roman Polanski and scribe Ronald Harwood, who won Oscars this year for The Pianist, will reteam for a big-screen adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic Oliver Twist, Variety reports. Shooting is expected to begin in Europe next summer with a British cast. Oliver Twist has been adapted for the screen more than a dozen times, dating back to 1912, when two Oliver Twist movies were released. Oliver!, the last live-action adaptation directed by Carol Reed, won four Oscars in 1969, including director and score.