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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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You don’t have to be a Shakespeare buff to enjoy Joss Whedon's modern adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing. Filmed at Whedon’s house in only 12 days with a cast of his friends from various past projects, the movie stays true to the playwright's comedy, but places his prose in a more relatable setting. Unlike another Shakespeare adaptation that keeps the original language but uses a modern setting, Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, Whedon's black-and-white interpretation is more casual and subtle.
Although the dialogue may be a bit hard to follow for those who aren't familiar with the play, the actors deliver their lines in such a way that makes their intent clear. You can understand when they are teasing, when they are fighting, and when they are being sarcastic (and there is a lot of sarcasm). They aren't giving dramatic performances on a stage; they are having normal conversations with each other that just happen to be spoken in flowery language.
As it turns out, many of today's romantic comedy tropes are found in the 400-year-old text. Full-of-himself playboy Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and independent, quick-witted Beatrice (Amy Acker) despise each other and are constantly bickering. Even if you haven’t read the play, I think you can guess what happens between them. The plot also includes a called-off wedding between Beatrice's cousin Hero (Jillian Morgese) and Claudio (Fran Kranz). Of course, there are elements of the story that wouldn't make sense in contemporary society, like Hero faking her death due to some big blow-up that arose because she might not be a virgin. But while there isn't always a happy ending in Shakespeare, for this rom-com, it's basically a given.
Much of the cast was already quite familiar with Shakespeare, because Whedon has hosted many readings of his plays over the years (one of which inspired this version of Much Ado). It's as though the audience was invited to one of Whedon's get-togethers... only there are also trapeze artists there for some reason. For Whedon fanatics, it's fun to see who the director rounded up to star in the film. (Look, it's Wesley! And Mal! And Agent Coulson!) Denisof and Acker pull off some physical comedy as they eavesdrop on conversations about each other, and Nathan Fillion is great in a small part as police officer Dogberry. It's obvious that the cast, as well as Whedon, have a sincere appreciation for Shakespeare's original work, but also had a fun time giving it their own twist.
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It can happen in any number of ways — a stark fade to black immediately following the firing of a gun, a body gone missing after the explosion of a building, a pair of fluttering eyes that never quite close while flirting with eternal abyss. Television loves to tease death. It loves to make us think one of its beloved (or detested) characters have crossed to the other side, only to reveal later on that the alleged deceased is alive and kicking. And there's no opportunity more advantageous for such a display than the season finale. The final episode of Boardwalk Empire's third season concluded with a highly ambiguous fate for one of the show's most vivid characters (spoilers to follow): Gillian Darmody, played by Gretchen Mol. Not long before her last moments on camera, Gillian was stuck with the heroin needle she used in the killing of the innocent Jimmy Doppelganger whom she made victim of one of her nefarious ploys earlier this season. Gillian revived the needle in an attempt to do away with Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale), but the gangster overpowered her and injected the drugs — presumably, a whole lot of 'em — into her system. The last we saw of Gillian, she was listing away from our world in the hallway of her own brothel, eyes gradually losing their luster but never shutting out altogether.
When you take into consideration the symbol of the needle — a murder weapon of recent past — and Gillian's candid diatribe earlier on in the episode about eventually getting her comeuppance, you're bound to let the poetry of her decline influence you: she's dead. But then, you remember the rule. The golden rule of television and movies. If you don't see them die, they're not actually dead. It's a maxim that every third act victim in horror cinema might have been wise to abide by. As such, you're wont to assume that we will see Gillian live another day, return for a fourth season and continue to wreak havoc upon everyone she meets.
And as touched on above, it's television drama season finale where this rule is nothing short of cardinal. The phenomenon dates back at least as far as its most famous perpetrator: Dallas. The third season finale concluded with the most iconic moment of the show, and one of the most iconic moments in television drama altogether: the shooting of J.R. Ewing. The cliffhanger left not only J.R.'s assailant unidentified, but the survival of the oil baron a mystery all its own. A similar question surrounded the sustenance of one Mr. Burns in The Simpsons' parody episode couplet, "Who Shot Mr. Burns?" (although no one really thought he was going to actually die... Homer has fallen down, like, 30 gorges and is doing just fine).
We've been dealt this sort of treatment in recent dramatic television as well. The Season 4 closer for Alias left the fates of car crash victims Vaughn and Sydney up in the air. The Season 7 finale of Weeds had Nancy Botwin the possible victim of a nearby sniper before an abrupt fade to black. And the Season 3 finale of Breaking Bad had relatively innocent meth cook Gale Boetticher staring down the barrel of Jesse's gun, which fires just as the camera slinks ever-so-slightly to the side... again, preceding an immediate blackout. And every single one of these characters survived.
Oh, wait, no. Gale died.
Leave it to Breaking Bad to shatter convention, replacing the rules of dramatic television with an unprecedented chaos. Okay, so that show, that one show, isn't out to play games with us. In fact, creator Vince Gilligan has suggested that his Season 3 conclusion was a stylistic choice, and that he intended no real ambiguity about Gale's demise (he confirmed Gale to be dead before Season 4 even picked up again). But most shows out there, Boardwalk included, seem to like toying with us. Because we like being toyed with. We appreciate what you're doing for us, Breaking Bad. We appreciate the respect and the sincerity. But we love a good "Is he or ain't he?" too. That's proven by not only every season finale, but every episode of television wherein we're treated to would-be deaths of characters. Every show from Lost to Dexter to Game of Thrones to Revenge to Homeland to the aforementioned — it's a rule nearly as good as gold in the television game. Yet it's one that still tantalizes, because there's always the possibility of another Breaking Bad-like rebel. If you don't see the eyes close shut, if you don't see a body recovered, if you don't see a freakin' casket, you're probably not too far gone in awaiting the return of the "deceased," even if it doesn't happen right away. After all, they've got to save some big shocker for sweeps.
[Photo Credit: HBO]
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When retired U.S. Special Forces Soldier Chris Vaughn (Johnson) returns to Kipsat County Wash. it's only to find his hometown overrun with crime drugs and violence. The old mill where Chris's father (John Beasley) worked for most of his life is closed and the town's only thriving industry is the Wild Cherry casino. Even Chris' high school sweetie Deni (Ashley Scott) couldn't resist the Wild Cherry's lure; she's become a peepshow dancer to "pay the bills." But Chris really loses it when he discovers the casino's dealers are using loaded dice--and he starts a brawl that ends with the security team carving up his chest and abdomen with a rusty Exacto knife. Chris also learns that that his old high school rival the casino's owner Jay Hamilton (Neal McDonough) has transformed the mill into a crystal meth lab and is using the casino's menacing security staff to sell the drugs to innocent kids. Chris strikes back by running for sheriff firing the entire police department on his first day and with the help of a cedar two-by-four and his deputy and buddy Ray Templeton (Johnny Knoxville) restores peace to the Pacific Northwest.
Johnson looking buffer than ever is well cast in the role of Chris: He's a fearless and determined soldier with beyond-human fighting skills. But while the film takes advantage of Johnson's brawn it fails to take advantage of his brain. In last year's comedy The Rundown Johnson proved he was more than a muscle-bound action star; he oozed charm and was surprisingly witty. With Walking Tall he never gets a chance to flex his acting muscles; if anything they atrophy. The only skills Johnson gets to show off are his ability to swing a plank at someone's shins and his unique way of bashing skulls against slot machines. Johnson's sidekick Ray played by Knoxville of MTV's Jackass fame is an ex-junkie who after spending a couple of years in the slammer is content with living in a camper and doing odd jobs around town. With his scraggly appearance and klutzy demeanor Knoxville supplies the film with brief interludes of humor amid the slam fest including a scene in which he stabs a bad guy with a potato peeler. Johnson and Knoxville would have made a first-rate action team had they had more screen time together.
A WWE production with Vince McMahon serving as executive producer Walking Tall has none of the subtlety of director Kevin Bray's last film All About the Benjamins and all the elements of a wrestling match. As with wrestling the film begins by melodramatically establishing the story (Chris and his family's lives are devastated by the mill's closure) and just like rival pugilists who publicly taunt the favored wrestler Chris challenges Jay--not for the world title but at least for control of Kipsat County--in a never-ending battle between good and evil that mimics wrestling to a T. But what's entertaining in the ring doesn't translate to film especially when the good guy running the town is a maniacal meathead. Chris is supposed to be the protagonist who single-handedly saves the town but who's responding to the citizens' domestic violence calls for example when the sheriff fires the entire precinct and spends 24 hours a day casing the casino? Never mind the fact that he has sex with his girlfriend in his office while he's on the clock.