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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There's an allure to imperfection. With his latest drama Lawless director John Hillcoat taps directly into the side of human nature that draws us to it. Hillcoat finds it in Prohibition history a time when the regulations of alcohol consumption were subverted by most of the population; He finds it in the rural landscapes of Virginia: dingy raw and mesmerizing. And most importantly he finds it in his main character Jack Bondurant (Shia LaBeouf) the scrappy third brother of a moonshining family who is desperate to prove his worth. Jack forcefully injects himself into the family business only to discover there's an underbelly to the underbelly. Lawless is a beautiful film that's violent as hell striking in a way only unfiltered Americana could be.
Acting as the driver for his two outlaw brothers Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke) isn't enough for Jack. He's enticed by the power of the gangster figure and entranced by what moonshine money can buy. So like any fledgling entrepreneur Jack takes matters into his own hands. Recruiting crippled family friend/distillery mastermind Cricket (Dane DeHaan) the young whippersnapper sets out to brew his own batch sell it to top dog Floyd Banner and make the family rich. The plan works — but it puts the Bondurant boys in over their heads with a new threat: the corrupt law enforcers of Chicago.
Unlike many stories of crime life Lawless isn't about escalation. The movie drifts back and forth leisurely popping in moments like the beats of a great TV episode. One second the Bondurants could be talking shop with their female shopkeep Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain). The next Forrest is beating the bloody pulp out of a cop blackmailing their operation. The plot isn't thick; Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave preferring to bask in the landscapes the quiet moments the haunting terror that comes with a life on the other side of the tracks. A feature film doesn't offer enough time for Lawless to build — it recalls cinema-level TV currently playing on outlets like HBO and AMC that have truly spoiled us — but what the duo accomplish is engrossing.
Accompanying the glowing visuals and Cave's knockout workout on the music side (a toe-tapping mix of spirituals bluegrass and the writer/musician's spine-tingling violin) are muted performances from some of Hollywood's rising stars. Despite LaBeouf's off-screen antics he lights up Lawless and nails the in-deep whippersnapper. His playful relationship with a local religious girl (Mia Wasikowska) solidifies him as a leading man but like everything in the movie you want more. Tom Hardy is one of the few performers who can "uurrr" and "mmmnerm" his way through a scene and come out on top. His greatest sparring partner isn't a hulking thug but Chastain who brings out the heart of the impenetrable beast. The real gem of Lawless is Guy Pearce as the Bondurant trio's biggest threat. Shaved eyebrows pristine city clothes and a temper like a rabid wolverine Pearce's Charlie Rakes is the most frightening villain of 2012. He viciously chews up every moment he's on screen. That's even before he starts drawing blood.
Lawless is the perfect movie for the late August haze — not quite the Oscary prestige picture or the summertime shoot-'em-up. It's drama that has its moonshine and swigs it too. Just don't drink too much.
The Associated Press reports Justin Timberlake says despite what the tabloids have reported, he hasn't been making out with women in bars since his breakup with Britney Spears."That's the thing I laugh at--and sometimes I cry about it, too," the 'N Sync singer told Us Weekly for its Sept. 9 issue. "It's happened for at least six months now, this whole image of everybody portraying me as a playboy. That's not me. When I go out, I go out with my group of friends....Any girl who approaches me in a club and tries to win me over, I'm not gonna go for it." The two pop idols split in March after four years as pop's most high-profile couple. Since then, he's been linked with Janet Jackson and dancer Jenna Dewan, but he insists he is single. "Make out in a club? I didn't do that when I was with Britney," Timberlake said. "Why would I do it with somebody I just met?"
Robert Blake is convinced he'll be acquitted in the shooting death of his wife and will one day return to his young daughter "because I didn't do it," the actor said from jail Thursday, AP reports. Speaking from behind glass at the Men's Central Jail in Los Angeles, the star of the 1970s TV show Baretta talked about his relationship with wife Bonny Lee Bakley and his determination to be acquitted and "walk into the sunset" with his 2-year-old daughter Rose. He said he held no hostility toward his wife and credited Bakley, whom he met in a jazz club and later inadvertently got pregnant, with reviving his spirit, and he acknowledged that Rose became the focus of his life. "I had something to live for."
Don't expect any cosmic concerts from 'N Sync star-turned-space tourist hopeful Lance Bass, who said he wants to use his voice aboard the international space station not for singing but for inspiring a new generation of astronauts and scientists, the AP reports. "The educational aspect of this whole mission is what inspires me the most," Bass said Thursday. "The education that I'm going to be doing is more like physics studies on video, just being able to talk live with people down in their schools on the ham radio. Just letting them...see what it's like to be in zero-gravity, to know what it's like to train to become a cosmonaut/astronaut." As for space motion sickness, "If I get sick, I get sick...but I have a stomach of steel."
Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard will replace Liam Neeson in Morgan Creek Prods.' Horror prequel Exorcist: The Beginning, The Hollywood Reporter reports. The project traces the story of Father Merrin (Skarsgard) and his first encounter with the devil while doing missionary work in post-World War II Africa. While there, Merrin's post-war experiences cause him to lose his faith, and he fights to save his beliefs when he meets the devil. A new production schedule conflicts with Neeson's commitment to the British film Love Actually.
Variety reports that Brad Pitt has jumped ship on director Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain and will likely land at another Warner Bros. project, Troy, playing Greek hero Achilles for director Wolfgang Petersen. The actor apparently expressed concerns about the complex Fountain script, which Aronofsky cowrote. This is the latest problem The Fountain has had: the studio temporarily pulled the plug when the budget crept up, the script had development troubles and co-star Cate Blanchett became pregnant.
Just after CBS announced its planned reality-series revival of The Beverly Hillbillies, Variety reports Fox Broadcasting said it is developing a nonfiction comedy based on another hickfest, Green Acres. The show will take a rich, upper-class family or person--maybe a celebrity--and give them a new spartan lifestyle, most likely in the South. Cameras will follow the upper crust folks as they try to get a job, buy groceries and fit in with average Americans. "I see a limo with a U-Haul attached," said Green Acres executive producer Jon Murray. "It's like when the first George Bush went to the supermarket and (apparently) didn't understand what a scanner was."
American Idol fever was hot, hot, hot Wednesday as the Fox TV talent search narrowed its list of contenders to two, Reuters reports. In a development that fans called a no-brainer, fuchsia-haired finalist Nikki McKibbin was voted off the show, leaving Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini to vie for a major-label recording contract. An estimated 16.7 million people--the show's biggest audience yet--tuned in to see Nikki get nixed, making Idol the most-watched show of the night and likely the most-watched show of the week, according to data-tracking firm Nielsen Media Research. Next Tuesday marks the show's singing finale, followed by Wednesday's two-hour finale broadcast live from Hollywood's Kodak Theatre.