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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Good news everyone! The first terrible movie of 2013 is in theaters in both 2D and barely 3D and it's called Texas Chainsaw! The special effects are terrible the plot is riddled with holes and it's unintentionally funny. The upside is that it's funnier than Parental Guidance and Leatherface is looking at least as rough around the edges as Billy Crystal. The downside is that any horror fan will be disappointed by its cheap tacky-looking effects and people who shelled out the extra money for 3D are being taken for a ride.
As fans of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre know you can make a bloody great horror movie for not a lot of dough. Part of the charm of the first was its gritty sleazy aftertaste and the crazy family dynamics of an all-male clan whose most-bullied member is a giant freak who wears other people's faces on top of his face. It was a fairly simple set-up loosely based on Ed Gein's propensity for digging up corpses decorating his home with their body parts and wearing the skin of dead ladies. Unlike other horror movies there wasn't a great formula that could be replicated over and over again — no Crystal Lake with horny teens or endless nightmares to invade — so most of the follow-ups have tried to untangle the Sawyer family tree. As the wonderful/terrible Drayton Sawyer says in the wonderfully bonkers Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 "The saw is family!" Would that filmmakers would just leave it at that.
The latest Chainsaw tries to add another branch to its tree with the arrival of Heather (Alexandra Daddario) a young woman who finds out that she was adopted if you can call being stolen from the arms of her dying mother after hicks burned her house down “adopted.” Heather is part of the infamous Sawyer clan and a cousin of Leatherface and she's inherited a strangely fancy old house somewhere in Texas from a grandmother she never knew she had. She also inherits Leatherface who lurks in the basement but she doesn't realize that until after he's killed all of her friends because she forgot to read her grandmother's letter until it's too late. But by then the mantra "Family is family" has been drilled into her and the script has been flipped; the monster that killed her friends and countless others is the victim of cruel townspeople who killed her family. (To be fair Heather's friends were stultifyingly dumb and boring and deserved to be killed.)
What makes this iteration so puzzling is that it features footage at the very beginning from the original movie which leads longtime fans to believe it will fit into that particular family configuration as opposed to later movies that added in random family members. Instead Chainsaw veers crazily in another direction and actually creates an entirely different family history that doesn't make sense on its own terms or in the original first two Chainsaw movies.
Texas Chainsaw had no less than four people involved in its script (the story was by Adam Marcus Debra Sullivan and Kirsten Elms while Marcus Sullivan and Stephen Susco are the credited screenwriters) which could explain why it's such a mess. The 3D is a joke; occasionally Leatherface will thrust the chainsaw at the screen or even better someone will throw the chainsaw. While the gore will definitely be too much for the squeamish it looks like bargain basement Halloween effects to the eye of an experienced horror movie fan. The cast isn't much better; Bill Moseley who appeared in the second movie plays a young Drayton Sawyer since the original actor Jim Siedow died in 2003. Marilyn Burns who played the final girl in the original movie shows up briefly as Heather's grandmother in a flashback. Daddario isn't given much to work with so it seems almost unfair to judge her based on this performance; her co-stars especially singer/songwriter Trey Songz are uniformly terrible. Even Leatherface played by Dan Yeager seems exhausted by this whole ordeal. The original Leatherface Gunnar Hansen appears in the beginning as one of the Sawyer clan. One can only imagine what he and Burns talked about around craft services.
It’s been a decade since Bryan Singer helped revitalize Superhero Cinema with his beloved mutant masterpiece, X-Men, but with the birth of each successive comic book film franchise, I often get the feeling that I’ve seen it all before. That sentiment changed when Warner Bros. Pictures whisked me away to New Orleans in early August for the coolest set visit I’ve ever been a part of: Green Lantern.
As a former comic book store employee and all-around spandex enthusiast, I’ve long considered Green Lantern one of my favorite fictional characters because of his unique backstory. It’s what makes his first feature film, which is directed by legendary action impresario Martin Campbell (Casino Royale), the movie I’m most anticipating next year. Unlike many of the costumed crime-fighters we’re accustomed to, cocksure test pilot Hal Jordan didn’t really choose to become the defender of Sector 2814; the power ring of a fallen champion set him on that heroic path. And he is not the only one of his kind. Over the course of the film, we will meet many members of the Green Lantern Corps, an intergalactic police force that maintains order throughout the universe, including fan favorites like Kilowag, Tomar Re and others that I’m not at liberty to talk about – yet. Their unique kinship is just one aspect of the massive self-contained mythology that defines the world in which Green Lantern lives, a world which sets him apart from the other heroes of the DC Universe.
Of course, an eclectic cache of supporting characters isn’t the only thing that makes Green Lantern unlike any superhero movie you’ve ever seen. The look of the film is both contemporary and otherworldly, and as we follow our hero from the suburbs of Coast City to the towers of Oa (the home planet of the Corps. and the source of their green energy), you’ll see why the talent and vision of Grant Major, the Academy Award-winning production designer of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, was required to make the film a reality. His experience in creating new worlds from the ground up lends itself to the extraordinary task of realizing the Oa that we’ve seen in the comics for decades.
As I toured a large sound stage on the set, I got to see some models of a few of the structures that we’ll see on the alien planet and could feel the influence of Middle Earth, and specifically the rocky towers of Mordor, in the designs of the Citadel, where the Guardians of the Universe (who founded the Corps. and serve as its advisors/leaders) reside, as well the Great Hall at the center of the planet, where a particularly exciting scene takes place. It should be noted that the scale of these environments is colossal: tiny paper cut-outs of characters were placed within the models to bring into focus the sheer size of these sets and it’s some of the most ambitious stuff that I’ve ever seen. Despite the technological and scientific advancements of its civilization, Oa will look very natural and organic, much like Hal Jordan’s home Coast City, but don’t think that creating an American metropolis for the big screen is any easier for the art department.
“The character of Coast City is very West Coast, California, as it’s described in the comics, but Coast City from our point of view is a hybrid of a few different things,” says Major. “Obviously we’re here in New Orleans making the film and so there are some key locations that we’ve incorporated into Coast City.” One such location is the Lakefront Airport, which will depict the main building and hangars of Ferris Industries, the aircraft company that links the three major characters in the film. “Although this part is New Orleans, this part [he gestures over to a series of concept paintings that combine to show us a full view of the Ferris compound] is going to be digital, this part will partially be on the West Coast,” he continues. “We’re also using Long Beach as a location in this jigsaw, so we sort of gather all of these elements together and make them into a faux Coast City.” As you can tell, crafting a city from scratch using little more than your imagination to guide your work is a trying task, but if you think that Major’s job is hard, try walking in Ryan Reynolds’ shoes.
“It’s just tough,” the 33-year-old actor says in response to questions about his work involving blue-screen battles and “construct creation,” a term that describes the fantastic abilities of the power ring. “A lot of times we build stuff and I can really just build muscle memory of everything I’m doing. [Sometimes] we’re going to create a construct and it’s going to be modified in post from what we thought it was on the day we shot it. It’s about trying to find different options.” Luckily for Reynolds, his performance isn’t totally governed by impractical effects.
Hal Jordan is a three dimensional character who Reynolds believes conforms more to the archetype of a “Han Solo or Chuck Yeager” than a Tony Stark or Clark Kent (yet another element that makes the film fresh and original) and comes complete with a “real family story” that is “steeped in tragedy,” as he puts it. “Hal loses his father and that is pretty difficult for any kid to overcome,” he says of Jordan, who uses wit and charm as an emotional defense mechanism. It’s a trait that differentiates him from the usual wisecracking funny man we’re used to seeing Reynolds play. “He’s at odds with his entire family and is a bit of a pariah, but he himself doesn’t see that. It’s the same reason people who play villains in a great way defend their characters. They believe they are not the villains, they just have different convictions than everyone else.”
Speaking of villains, current go-to antagonist Mark Strong is playing Sinestro, one of the greatest Green Lanterns of all time and a mentor of sorts to Hal as he develops his abilities. Anyone who has seen Strong’s work in films like Kick-Ass and Sherlock Holmes knows that he’s really good at being bad. Reynolds had nothing but esteem for his colleague, who’ll be prominently featured in our full set visit report in the coming months. “He’s going to be something to contend with,” says the star. “He really brings this weight and dignity to his character. He’s so elegant in the way he moves and the way he behaves and speaks; it’s minimal effort for maximum gain with him.” Having seen full character renderings of Sinestro, I can tell you that Mark looks incredible in character, as if he walked right out of the comic books themselves. His performance is inspiring, and will likely go down in history as one of the great comic book villains of all time, right up there with Jack Nicholson’s Joker and Terrence Stamp’s General Zod.
However, in no way am I comparing Green Lantern to Batman or Superman: The Movie, because you just can’t. As I said before, this film is unlike any superhero movie that you’ve ever seen in terms of story, special effects and scope. Even Campbell, who’s no stranger to big-budget productions of this size, marvels at what he and his team have accomplished. “Clearly Green Lantern is huge, simply by virtue of the stories and the concept of the character being a part of an intergalactic police force. With this character, you have the whole of space and the universe. That gives you tremendous scope. How much bigger can you go?”
And that’s the great thing about this film: it’s BIG in every sense of the word. You’ll see every type of battle imaginable, from fistfights and aerial dogfights to swordplay and space battles, in addition to some of the most breathtaking and immersive imagery ever created for a film. Warner Bros., Campbell and co. have something very special on their hands and I can’t wait to share more with you about their spectacular film, but you’ll have to wait for our full set visit report, which should be coming in a few months. It will include FULL interviews with Reynolds, Campbell, Strong, costume designer Ngila Dickson, co-producer and DC Entertainment CCO Geoff Johns and more! Check back with us for more on Green Lantern and be sure to keep June 17, 2011, marked on your calendars in green!
Val Waxman (Woody Allen) is an award-winning director who has jumped the shark and is now in Canada shooting deodorant commercials for nickels and dimes and well animal pelts. So when his ex-wife Ellie (Téa Leoni) and her new husband slick Hollywood studio exec Hal Yeager (Treat Williams) ask him to helm Galaxy Pictures' next big-budget movie he reluctantly signs the deal. Unfortunately the script for The City That Never Sleeps reminds Val of his own failed relationship with his son and causes him to go psychosomatically blind. Poor Val doesn't want to lose this much-needed gig and allows his agent Al (Mark Rydell) to persuade him to direct the film anyway which means keeping his blindness a secret. To make matters worse the publicity department has given a reporter from Esquire magazine the green light to cover the daily happenings on the set. Needless to say no one can do a better job than Allen of talking and gesticulating to the air walking into large objects and falling off sets.
Nervous and jittery like most of his characters Woody Allen is hilarious as Val and he makes the character's blindness completely believable. Allen's performance is priceless especially in the scenes where he is out with Ellie; he tries his best to have a professional discussion with her but constantly blurts out these Turrets-like comments about their breakup. Téa Leoni (Jurassic Park III) is superb and very natural in the role of Ellie--she has come such a long way since her short-lived 1995 television series The Naked Truth. Treat Williams (Venomous) and George Hamilton (Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles) are perfectly cast as glossy Hollywood tycoons while Mark Rydell (Intersection) personifies perfectly the loyal entertainment agent. Will & Grace's Debra Messing struts her big screen skills with her portrayal of Lori the ditzy aspiring actress and Val's live-in girlfriend but much like sultry Tiffani Thiessen's (The Ladies Man) part her role is rather small.
Allen has written a clever satire of Hollywood films and what goes on behind the scenes. When his character Val loses his vision and exclaims that he will not be able to direct the film his agent Al responds "Have you seen some of the pictures out there?" The rest of the film never lets up down to the film's crowd-pleasing "Hollywood Ending." There are quick-witted jabs at everyone and everything especially West Coast culture. The film even pokes fun at itself sometimes: Messing's character Lori leaves for an extended stay at a fitness spa early on in the film and when she finally returns Ellie comments "I forgot about her." Well so had we all. Allen also drops a lot of little references that will leave you wondering. For example his character mentions that when his first wife left him she changed their son's name. (Wasn't Seamus Allen's real life son with Mia Farrow once called Satchel?) Although there are some preachy moments including a dinner party scene where the characters discuss their favorite Hitchcock film the film is witty and entertaining.