Universal Pictures via Everett Collection
Get your fresh-squeezed pink lemonade and don’t forget to take a puppy on the way out: the follow-up to Bridesmaids is on its way. Kristen Wiig and co-writer and creative partner Annie Mumolo revealed Wednesday to the New York Times that they’re beginning work on a new film, which will see the pair play best friends who “find themselves in over their heads and out of their depths, which were, perhaps, not too deep to begin with.” The film, which as of right now has neither a title nor a tentative release date, will also center around a town called Vista Del Mar, and is slated to become Wiig’s directorial debut.
In a statement about the project, Wiig revealed that she has been interested in stepping behind the camera for some time now, and felt that this project is the perfect opportunity for her first go. But this film wouldn’t just mark Wiig’s directorial debut; it would also mark the first time that a female cast member on Saturday Night Live has helmed a feature film.
Though former featured player Laura Kightlinger directed the 2003 documentary 60 Spins Around the Sun, a picture about the career of comedian Randy Credico, none of the women from the historic series has managed to make the jump over to narrative film directing in the last 40 years. However, many male regulars have moved behind the camera – everyone from Bill Murray to Harry Shearer to Chris Rock to Ben Stiller has directed movies, many of which are critically-acclaimed. While directors in general tend to be overwhelmingly male, it’s most surprising that SNL, a show which has a reputation for producing multi-hyphenate artists who are adept at a number of skills and genres, still has yet to produce a female director from among its ranks of repertory players.
After all, plenty of those actors are household names by the time that they leave the show. They spend most of their time on SNL heavily involved in the creative process, developing and writing their own material week in and week out, and often help make decisions about costuming, staging, and performance choices. All of those experiences and talents would lend themselves to directing. We'd expect many performers and writers with experiences in these fields to gravitate behind the camera at some point. So, why, then have so few of SNL’s female performers made the jump?
Despite the success of female-fronted and written films like Bridesmaids, it’s still much harder for women in Hollywood to get projects greenlit by studios than it is for men. Studios still assume that male audiences don’t want to see films about or for women, even though many female-fronted comedies over the last few years have gone on to become some of the most successful films of all time. Bridesmaids is the seventh highest-grossing R-rated comedy ever made, and yet the industry still treats its success as an anomaly that won’t be repeated. Considering how difficult it has been for many of the women on SNL to break into film as performers, it makes sense that they’d struggle even more to get a directing project financed.
Still, there is some hope that things will get better soon. Tri-Star Entertainment trusting Wiig to direct her follow-up to Bridesmaids – a film that is under a great deal of pressure, since Wiig and Mumolo rightly refused to make a unnecessary sequel – is a major sign of confidence not only in Wiig, but in women-fronted films in general. It may only be possible because of her first project’s massive success, but it’s still a major step forward, especially since studios have begun to trust other women-centric comedies to female directors, like Elizabeth Banks and Pitch Perfect 2. There are also a few SNL alums making their directorial debuts on TV shows, like Amy Poehler, who has helmed episodes of Parks and Recreation and Broad City, and that experience will help convince studios to hire more women on their projects. Not to mention plenty of women who, like Wiig, have often-stated an interest in directing (both Poehler and Tina Fey have expressed the desire to tackle a film soon), and more big-name performers stepping behind the scenes will help open the door for women who might not be as instantly recognizable.
Unfortunately, though, studios still see female-fronted and -directed films as a risk, which makes it difficult for women to break into different roles. It’s depressing that Wiig, despite becoming a household name thanks to her time on Saturday Night Live, is the first female cast member to make the jump to directing. The show produces plenty of multi-talented women, and between the clout and name-recognition that SNL gives them, their ability to adapt to a variety of tasks and situations, and the way audiences are begging for more female-centric films, hiring more of those women to follow in Wiig’s footsteps would be a risk worth taking.
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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Most of the Hunger Games mania has been focused on its kick-ass heroine, the love triangle, and what it says about our relationship to reality television. With the plethora of zombie-style apocalypse stories out there lately, true dystopia, about a society that has regressed to a pre-20th century state, has fallen by the wayside. But readers and fans of the films often forget that Collins is writing about a dystopian world. The government may use advanced surveilliance equipment to keep its citizens scared, but the tactics are centuries old — pitting small groups of citizens against one another in hopes that their hate keeps them from unifying. In a way, the Districts are almost like feudal manors, all loyal to the same central power but in no way loyal to one another.
And like that old-fashioned system of government, Panem has some other, darker practices at its core. We don't get to see much from every District, but what we do see is actually only glanced on in the series. Panem is a funhouse mirror version of the U.S., with Katniss' District 12 a clear model on Appalachian mining towns in rural Pennsylvania and West Virginia. This is reflected in the first film, which went even further and built the town to look like a mining town from the 1920s or '30s. There are also the Avoxes, mute household servants who are made to do domestic work after breaking the strict Panem laws. This could be inspired by a number of real-life analogues, from European indentured servitude to strict punishments in ancient Middle Eastern cultures. Collins pulls from historical injustices rather than inventing new ones.
But in District 11, the agricultural farm district, there are some clear parallels being made to the American antebellum South. The District is full of fields that the citizens work through grueling hours, even into the night (where, in a modern twist, they are forced to work in the dark with night vision goggles). The fence around their District is always electrified in order to prevent escapes, and even the younger children, like Rue (who's only 12) have to work instead of going to school. And we don't meet too many people from District 11 throughout the series (only Rue, Thresh, and Chaff come to mind), but all of them are described in contrast to the other characters as dark skinned and dark eyed. And Katniss, who's only ever seen people from other Districts on television in the Hunger Games, can easily recognize all of them because of this.
The punishment for stealing, running away, or breaking any rules at all is being publicly whipped. Again, there's no problem with Katniss not understanding the subtext of this moment, but how on Earth did readers so easily gloss over these details and allusions to slavery? And why doesn't anybody (even Collins) care to call it out?
In the film, they had the chance to show the people of District 11, and while they did not cast all black actors (and cast Lenny Kravitz in a role of a Capitol citizen, hinting at more diversity among the haves as well as the have nots), they did at least try to show the destituion of the people and picked a location that could pass for a Southern plantation. In Catching Fire, Katniss has the chance to see District 11 for the first time. While she obviously doesn't know American history, she is taken aback by the cruelty of the guards. It will be interesting to see how the rebellion in District 11 is treated at the start of the film. We've seen a lot of American slave imagery this year, with 12 Years a Slave still fresh in many people's minds. Maybe this will shock people into realizing the comparisions Collins was making when she wrote the book. But they're dealing with difficult territory.
But if only Collins had dug into those themes a little more. If racial harmony has regressed that much, how are women treated? Religion isn't even mentioned in these books, and it's often a powerful tool in the hands of an oppressive government. Instead, the books don't really address many social issues. Mockingjay is primarily focused on the rebellion and the cost of war. But there are two movies being made out of one pretty short book. Maybe there's space to go outside of Katniss' head a little bit and explore Panem. Glancing over imagery that loaded is shallow for an otherwise pretty astute dystopian satire.