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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For some time now, we steadfast 30 Rock fans — purists, nostalgic for the days of the Cleve and Subway Heroes, who keep watching the show in large part out of Tina Fey loyalty — have looked forward to the eventual conclusion of Liz Lemon's misadventures. Though the long running NBC sitcom is still more than capable of inspiring ample laughs, the 30 Rock of today is inarguably slighted by the unique and dynamic comic sensation that it once was. More than great gags, though, the show has been long dormant in supplying genuine heart. Even in its heyday 30 Rock was not an overtly sentimental show, but through its exhibition of the great friendships fostered between Liz and Jack, Liz and Jenna (the old Jenna), Kenneth and Tracy, and — a personal favorite — Kenneth and Jack, could always manage legitimately touching stories. And damn it if it still doesn't have some of that old magic tucked away. In fact, although I maintain that it is better that 30 Rock head to pasture before slipping into the crevasse of comedic failure, this week's episode "A Goon's Deed in a Weary World" — the second to last in an impressive 7-year run — does make the imminent finale a tad more bittersweet.
The episode follows Liz as she attempts with desperation to save TGS from certain doom. Jack is unable to simply give Liz her program back, but he has granted her the ability to "prove her case" to the board members with said authority by putting on the perfect episode of her variety show. Unfortunately, Liz has her regular arsenal at her disposal: a lackluster writing staff, a marginally competent producer, no money (even with the help of her new sponsor, Bro Body Douche), and worst of all, two of the most unreliable, destructive, actively difficult stars in television history. But even with her longstanding derision for all of these people, she still fosters an unrelenting compulsion to protect them. She loves her nerds, and will stop at nothing to keep their show alive.
But if Liz only had her nerds to worry about, then things would be easier: on the other end of her cell phone all episode long is husband Criss, begging with Liz to let TGS go and come help him prepare for the arrival of their two adopted children, who are being flown into New York imminently. So accustomed to putting work first, Liz is incapable of tearing herself away from this project to save the show, even at the expense of her budding family life. Poor Liz Lemon. Having it all ain't as easy as you thought.
But for dramatic effect, let's delay the tear-inducing conclusion of Liz's story and jump over to Jack and Kenneth, who have a sweet little thing going on all their own. See, Jack, now the CEO of KableTown, is seeking a replacement to head NBC. As such, he's brought on Kenneth — the page! He made him a page again!— to give a tour/secret interview to the five prospective candidates. Jack will lurk and judge the group, each a grown version of a Willy Wonka character in this extended parody of the classic children's move... Kenneth even dresses up like Slugworth to try and illicit "bad behavior" from the prospectives in hopes of narrowing down the selection. While Kenneth urges Jack to go with the "purest of heart" among the choices, Jack insists that the new NBC president must be a pragmatist who understands business and is willing and able to be cold-hearted and decisive. Upon the eruption of the disagreement, Kenneth meekly chastises Jack's own sensibilities, making the man question himself (Kenneth is the only one who can ever get through to Jack, so it seems) and how good a businessman, and man in general, he is.
In the end, Jack recognizes that through all his education at Princeton undergrad and Harvard Business School, his tutelage under Jack Welch and Don Geiss, his long line of experiences molding him into the perfect executive, Jack has utterly failed in the TV business. He picks shows that flop, invests in ideas that suck, and is constantly at odds with his own devices. Why? Because TV makes no sense. As such, Jack decides the only person who can appropriately run NBC is someone who simply and unabashedly wants to. Someone who just loves TV.
You know where this is going.
Jack names Kenneth the president of NBC. And it's silly and sappy. It's long predicted (even the episode jokes about this, naming the top candidate among the group "Mr. McGuffin"). But it's really funny, really sweet, and exactly what so many of us wanted. Cue the everlasting hug between Kenneth and an unwilling Jack, who takes one final glimpse out of his office window... while Kenneth is still adhered.
But back to Liz! Back to Liz! Her show's a mess. Her new 5-year-old twins are landing at JFK. Her husband is getting fed up with her devotion to TGS. And she has no one in her corner ... OR DOES SHE?
Taking note of how much Liz has on her shoulders, her friends and coworkers decide to finally do the right thing. And when I say "finally," I don't just mean in this situation. I mean finally, after seven freakin' years. Tracy and Jenna, shrugging off the own hits their careers will take after the death of TGS, tell the board that they quit. Following their lead are Pete, Frank, Twofer, the whole gang. Everyone throws in the towel. But not because they're lazy, selfish, craving attention... because they want to free Liz Lemon. They know that as long as she is shackled to TGS, she'll be unhappy. But if they let her go, she can finally live her life, find joy and satisfaction elsewhere (with her family, and maybe a new job?), and actually have it all. It's really freaking sweet. But not as sweet as when Liz rushes to the airport (just like that time in Season 1!) to meet her children.
For these are no ordinary twin 5-year-olds. In addition to being two different races (this is possible... everyone saw it on Maury), they are unique in personality. Her new daughter Janet is a vapid blonde with a peculiar affect ("Is that a cam-a-ra?"), and her African-American son Terry as rambling loon with an affinity for troublesome pets who calls her Liz Lemon. Yep, she has her very own Tracy and Jenna to raise. And she couldn't be happier. Yay.
[Photo Credit: Ali Goldstein/NBC]
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Last year director Garry Marshall hit upon a devilishly canny approach to the romantic comedy. A more polished refinement of Hal Needham’s experimental Cannonball Run method it called for assembling a gaggle of famous faces from across the demographic spectrum and pairing them with a shallow day-in-the-life narrative packed with gobs of gooey sentiment. A cynical strategy to be sure but one that paid handsome dividends: Valentine’s Day earned over $56 million in its opening weekend surpassing even the rosiest of forecasts. Buoyed by the success Marshall and his screenwriter Katherine Fugate hastily retreated to the bowels of Hades to apply their lucrative formula to another holiday historically steeped in romantic significance and New Year’s Eve was born.
Set in Manhattan on the last day of the year New Year’s Eve crams together a dozen or so canned scenarios into one bloated barely coherent mass of cliches. As before Marshall’s recruited an impressive ensemble of minions to do his unholy bidding including Oscar winners Hilary Swank Halle Berry and Robert De Niro the latter luxuriating in a role that didn’t require him to get out of bed. High School Musical’s Zac Efron is paired up with ‘80s icon Michelle Pfeiffer – giving teenage girls and their fathers something to bond over – while Glee’s Lea Michele meets cute with a pajama-clad Ashton Kutcher. There’s Katherine Heigl in a familiar jilted-fiance role Sarah Jessica Parker as a fretful single mom and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges as the most laid-back cop in New York. Sofia Vergara and Hector Elizondo mine for cheap laughs with thick accents – his fake and hers real – and Jessica Biel and Josh Duhamel deftly mix beauty with blandness. Fans of awful music will delight in the sounds of Jon Bon Jovi straining against type to play a relevant pop musician.
The task of interweaving the various storylines is too great for Marshall and New Year’s Eve bears the distinct scent and stain of an editing-room bloodbath with plot holes so gaping that not even the brightest of celebrity smiles can obscure them. But that’s not the point – it never was. You should know better than to expect logic from a film that portrays 24-year-old Efron and 46-year-old Parker as brother-and-sister without bothering to explain how such an apparent scientific miracle might have come to pass. Marshall wagers that by the time the ball drops and the film’s last melodramatic sequence has ended prior transgressions will be absolved and moviegoers will be content to bask in New Year's Eve's artificial glow. The gambit worked for Valentine's Day; this time he may not be so fortunate.
Cooked up in the head of Oscar-winning screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) comes the movie in which he makes his directorial debut. Without Michel Gondry or Spike Jonze sifting through the maze this time Kaufman himself weaves this crazy quilt with consummate skill. In other words Synecdoche New York is just as successfully quirky humane and head scratching as all the others in the Kaufman ouerve. To sum up the plot succinctly is impossible but it centers on a stage director and hypochondriac Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who trades in his suburban life with wife Adele (Catherine Keener) daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein) and regional theatrical work in Schenectady for a chance at Broadway. He puts together a cast (resembling those in his own dream world) and brings them to a Manhattan warehouse being designed as a replica of the city outside. As the world he is creating inside these walls expands so does the focus of his own life and relationships. As the years literally fly by he gets deeper into his theatrical self which soon starts to merge with his own increasingly pathetic reality. Whatever you make of the tale Kaufman is telling here the casting could not be better or more suited to the quirky material. Philip Seymour Hoffman offers up a tour-de-force and is simply superb playing all the tics and foibles of the deeply disturbed Caden. His early scenes in his “normal” home are wonderfully alive with all his phobias and hypochondria in view. Later we literally watch this man disintegrate as his master creation overwhelms him. Hoffman seems to fully understand the mental trauma of a man running as far from his own realities as he possibly can. Catherine Keener as always is right on target as his wife Adele. She has a knack for taking what seems like tiny moments and making them define exactly who this woman is. Jennifer Jason Leigh as a mentor to Caden’s daughter is always fascinating to watch and plays Maria with an ounce of irony. Tom Noonan playing the actor portraying Caden in the play is the perfect doppelganger and delightfully adds to Caden’s confused state. The all-pro trio of Michelle Williams as Caden’s new wife Claire; Samantha Morton as the irresistible assistant Hazel; and Hope Davis as Caden’s self-absorbed therapist add greatly to the merry mix. It’s nice to watch Charlie Kaufman seize control of his own work. In this instance he’s really the only one who can deliver us his Fellini-esque vision. Centering it all on the theatrical director’s weird universe Synecdoche does seem like it might be Kaufman’s own take on Fellini’s 8 ½ or even Woody Allen’s paean to that film Stardust Memories. Let’s just say we know most of it must exist somewhere inside Kaufman. Early domestic scenes could have been played flat but the novice director moves the camera around skillfully enough to make us immediately engaged in Caden’s world. Second half of the film set in the phantasmagoric warehouse is a stunning tapestry of scenes from Kaufman’s singularly fertile imagination. It’s nice to note he’s well equipped with the basic tools a director needs for this type of challenging material. Overall his film is a surprising confounding visual feast -- a dream/nightmare come to life and then spinning out of control.