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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The year 2013 has been good to several actors. A number of Hollywood's best and brightest have had big roles in at least two films, some of these turns much more impressive than others. For each actor, we pit these roles against one another, and after much discussion, and break-room fisticuffs, we decided a winner. So which roles came out on top?
Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games) vs. Rosalyn Rosenfeld (American Hustle)
Katniss is a fierce competitor and is tasked to be the symbol of a burgening revolution, but Rosalyn is a gale force wind of pure charisma, and she could have the entire world wrapped around her little finger if she wanted. We get the feeling she could topple dictatorships and fell regimes without needing a bow and arrow. Plus, using weapons would totally mess up her clear coat and she can't have that. She just can't.
Winner: Rosalyn Rosenfeld
Barbara Sugarman (Don Jon) vs. Samantha (Her)
Barbara is a no-nonsense Jersey girl with strong opinions about how her man should conduct herself, but Johansson really flexes her acting muscles when she's limited to a voice-only role as Samantha in Her. In Spike Jonze's latest, she perfectly captures what it's like to be a person trapped in circuitry, yet yearning for real, tangible love.
Jordan Belfort (The Wolf of Wall Street) vs. Jay Gatsby (The Great Gatsby)
Both Belfort and Gatsby only saw the color green, but while Jay built his wealth in the pursuit for Daisy from accross the bay, Belfort wallowed in the depravity of extreme greed for the relentless hunt for the almighty dollar, preaching his sermon of wealth to his baptized followers. Gatsby was lavish for sure, but Belfort made being despicable look like a hell of a lot of fun before it all came crashing down around his ears.
Winner: Jordan Belfort
Special Agent Sarah Ashburn (The Heat) vs. Dr. Ryan Stone (Gravity)
Agent Ashburn was the kind of straight-laced stick in the mud that everyone loves the hate until Det. Shannon Mullins teaches her to stop being such a "Naach" and loosen up a little, but Ryan Stone's journey from depressed scientist to fierce survivor was probably the most life-affirming thing at the movies this year.
Winner: Dr. Ryan Stone
Russell Baze (Out of the Furnace) vs. Irving Rosenfeld (American Hustle)
Russell Baze is a blue collar working stiff who goes up against a terrifyingly evil version of Woody Harrelson, but there's something electric in Bale's performance as Irving Rosenfeld in American Hustle. Irving might have gotten the short shrift in terms of '70s hairdos in the movie, but he works that wispy comb-over of his like nobody's business.
Winner: Irving Rosenfeld
Ron Woodroof (Dallas Buyers Club) vs. Mark Hanna (The Wolf of Wall Street) vs. Mud (Mud)Matthew McConaughey is fun as Mark Hanna, an experienced stock broker who teaches Leo's Jordan Belfort the basic philosiphies of scheming suckers and taking barells of illicit substances in The Wolf of Wall Street. He's also hits the mark as island hobo (don't call him a bum) in the adventure story Mud. But the actor really shines as the emaciated cowboy who starts an HIV drug trafficking ring in Dallas Buyers Club.
Winner: Ron Woodroof
FBI agent Richard DiMaso (American Hustle) vs. Phil Wenneck (The Hangover Part III) vs. Avery Cross (The Place Beyond the Pines)
We've seen Cooper play the straght man opposite The Hangover's gaggle of weirdos in two movies already, so he's wasn't really breaking new ground as Phil Wenneck in the last film. In Place Beyond the Pines, Cooper is outshined by the far more charismatic Handsome Luke character, played by Ryan Gosling. But the actor is truly exciting as the manic and ambitious FBI agent Richard DiMaso, who seeks to create the bust of the century by recruiting some cornered con men.
Winner: Richard DiMaso
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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Forbes has released their annual list of the highest-paid celebrities, and for the fourth year in a row, Oprah Winfrey has snagged the top slot; she raked in an estimated $165 million in 2011. Following behind her at a close second is Michael Bay ($160 million) and Steven Spielberg ($130 million). Then comes Jerry Bruckheimer, Dr. Dre, Tyler Perry, and man after man after man, until we reach Britney Spears, who barely sneaks into the top 20. While we applaud Winfrey, we are also left scratching our heads. Where are all the ladies?
Here's Forbes' list of the top 20 highest-paid celebrities:
1. Oprah Winfrey: $165 mill
2. Michael Bay: $160 mill
3. Steven Spielberg: $130 mill
4. Jerry Bruckheimer: $155 mill
5. Dr. Dre: $110 mill
6. Tyler Perry: $105 mill
7. Howard Stern: $95 mill
8. James Patterson: $94 mill
9. George Lucas: $90 mill
10. Simon Cowell: $90 mill
11. Glenn Beck: $80 mill
12. Elton John: $80 mill
13. Tom Cruise: $75 mill
14. Dick Wolf: $70 mill
15. Rush Limbaugh: $69 mill
16. Manny Pacquiao: $67 mill
17. Dr. Phil McGraw: $64 mill
18. Donald Trump: $63 mill
19. Ryan Seacrest: $59 mill
20. Britney Spears: $58 mill
There is a serious dearth of women on this list. Winfrey's spot at the head of the table is hard-earned and well-deserved; she's a media mogul with a magazine, cable network, Sirius radio deal, and a number of television shows to her name. But you have to scroll down to the very last spot on the list to see another woman's name. Britney Spears helps bookend the list due to her endorsement deals, fragrance for Elizabeth Arden, musical appearances, and album sales. In between you find men who, largely, have worked to build empires for themselves. Forbes' list this year is not filled with hot shot actors and musicians (although there are a few), but with figures who are at the helm of many lucrative projects.
This list points to a larger problem. Considering the professions on the list, the lack of women does not illustrate that women are being paid less for equal work (we'll get to that later), but rather that there is a serious deficit of women in creative leadership positions in film and TV. Where are the woman producers? The women directors and the women franchise stars?
The men at the top of Forbes' list — names like Bay, Spielberg, Bruckheimer, and Perry — are responsible for bringing us some of the highest-grossing films and film franchises of all time. Transformers (Bay), Pirates of the Caribbean (Bruckheimer) and Jurassic Park (Spielberg) all make it into the top 25. But only one prominent female producer behind a blockbuster hit in the past few years springs to mind: Nina Jacobson was a producer on The Hunger Games. Going back a little bit farther, we have Barbara Broccoli behind many films in the James Bond franchise, Gale Anne Hurd executive producing AMC's The Walking Dead and the Terminator films, Drew Barrymore with her Charlie's Angel's reboots and Kathleen Kennedy, whose resume is filled with box office hits (Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, and Schindler's List, to name a few). But these powerful, successful women are the exception, rather than the rule. Plus, their work on the franchises named above still does not make enough in residuals to gain them spots on Forbes' list this year.
In a similar vein, Tom Cruise is the only star on Forbes' list best known for his work as an actor, and his spot is due largely to the success of 2011's Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, on which he also has a producer credit. Racking our brains for female leads in huge franchises, we came up with Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games (which thus far only has one film out), Milla Jovovich in Resident Evil, Kate Beckinsale in Underworld, and Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider. Unlike Cruise, not one of these women acted as a producer on her own franchise. And that, my friends, is the question. Why not? Why aren't these women taking their careers, and their potential fortunes, into their own hands? I wish I knew.
And this brings us to the next question: Why is it that the female counterparts to some of these celebrities didn't seem to earn as much as the men? Dr. Dre ranks fifth due almost completely to the success of his headphone line, Beats by Dre, but where are Jennifer Lopez, Beyoncé, and Katy Perry, who all similarly have successful product lines in addition to their music careers? This list only takes into account the money brought in in 2011, so could these divas just have had an off year? Even so, they seem conspicuously absent.
Also absent seems to be Barbara Walters, Harry Potter author JK Rowling (James Patterson made the list, after all), Madonna, Celine Dion (Elton John's up there, why not Dion?), and Lady Gaga. Only time will tell if their absences from the Forbes list is due to a single less lucrative year, or a greater discrepancy in earning between the sexes in Hollywood. Madonna and Gaga, with major tours and album releases in 2012 can hopefully crash the boys' club next year. 2012 was also big for the aforementioned Lopez (who landed a judging gig on American Idol) and Katy Perry (who released a concert documentary movie), so maybe 2012 will be the Year of the Ladies. One can always hope.
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[Photo Credit: WENN.com]
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In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.