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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It was the trickle of pee heard around the world. Cannes attendees were aghast and/or amused an infamous scene from The Paperboy that shows Nicole Kidman urinating on Zac Efron; this is apparently a great salve for jellyfish burns which were covering our Ken Doll-like protagonist. (In fact the term protagonist should be used very loosely for Efron's character Jack who is mostly acted upon than active throughout.)
Lurid! Sexy! Perverse! Trashy! Whether or not it's actually effective is overshadowed by all the hubbub that's attached itself to the movie for better or worse. In fact the movie is all of these things — but that's actually not a compliment. What could have become somethingmemorable is jaw-droppingly bad (when it's not hilarious). Director Lee Daniels uses a few different visual styles throughout from a stark black and white palette for a crime scene recreation at the beginning to a '70s porno aesthetic that oscillates between psychedelic and straight-up sweaty with an emphasis on Efron's tighty-whiteys. This only enhances the sloppiness of the script which uses lines like narrator/housekeeper/nanny Anita's (Macy Gray) "You ain't tired enough to be retired " to conjure up the down-home wisdom of the South. Despite Gray's musical talents she is not a good choice for a narrator or an actor for that matter. In a way — insofar as they're perhaps the only female characters given a chunk of screen time — her foil is Charlotte Bless Nicole Kidman's character. Anita is the mother figure who wears as we see in an early scene control-top pantyhose whereas Charlotte is all clam diggers and Barbie doll make-up. Or as Anita puts it "an oversexed Barbie doll."
The slapdash plot is that Jack's older brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey) comes back to town with his colleague Yardley (David Oyelowo) to investigate the case of a death row criminal named Hillary Van Wetter. Yardley is black and British which seems to confuse many of the people he meets in this backwoods town. Hillary (John Cusack) hidden under a mop of greasy black hair) is a slack-jawed yokel who could care less if he's going to be killed for a crime he might or might not have committed. He is way more interested in his bride-to-be Charlotte who has fallen in love with him through letters — this is her thing apparently writing letters and falling in love with inmates — and has rushed to help Ward and Yardley free her man. In the meantime we're subjected to at least one simulated sex scene that will haunt your dreams forever. Besides Hillary's shortcomings as a character that could rustle up any sort of empathy the case itself is so boring it begs the question why a respected journalist would be interested enough to pursue it.
The rest of the movie is filled with longing an attempt to place any the story in some sort of social context via class and race even more Zac Efron's underwear sexual violence alligator innards swamp people in comically ramshackle homes and a glimpse of one glistening McConaughey 'tock. Harmony Korine called and he wants his Gummo back.
It's probably tantalizing for this cast to take on "serious" "edgy" work by an Oscar-nominated director. Cusack ditched his boombox blasting "In Your Eyes" long ago and Efron's been trying to shed his squeaky clean image for so long that he finally dropped a condom on the red carpet for The Lorax so we'd know he's not smooth like a Ken doll despite how he was filmed by Daniels. On the other hand Nicole Kidman has been making interesting and varied career choices for years so it's confounding why she'd be interested in a one-dimensional character like Charlotte. McConaughey's on a roll and like the rest of the cast he's got plenty of interesting projects worth watching so this probably won't slow him down. Even Daniels is already shooting a new film The Butler as we can see from Oprah's dazzling Instagram feed. It's as if they all want to put The Paperboy behind them as soon as possible. It's hard to blame them.
Back in Season 2, Parks and Recreation gave the unlucky-at-love—and we mean very unlucky-at-love—Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) a little helping of some good-natured romance, and in the most unlikely form: comedian Louis C.K. Known for his misanthropic, pessimistic persona as a standup comic and a caricature of himself on FX's series Louie, C.K. enjoyed a significant story arc on Parks and Rec as Leslie's sweet, timid and incredibly devoted boyfriend, Dave Sanderson, a Pawnee police officer. The pair parted when Sanderson moved to San Diego, Calif. for a job opportunity, and we haven't heard from, or much about, him since. But that won't be the case for long, as C.K. is slated to return to Parks and Recreation later this season.
Nowadays, Leslie's heart is invested heavily in Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott), which is complicated enough, seeing as their relationship will indubitably provoke a scandal in Leslie's campaign for public office. So, bringing an ex-boyfriend into the equation isn't likely to make things run any smoother for our favorite small-town government employee.
It's hard to imagine Leslie considering leaving Ben, with whom she is so infatuated, for Dave. But the idea of a face-off between the two most awkward and non-confrontational human beings ever to walk the streets of Indiana? That's comedic gold. Leslie sure has a type, doesn't she?
C.K.'s appearance is set for early 2012, after the show returns from winter hiatus. Parks and Recreation airs Thursday nights at 8:30 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.
Queen Latifah and Steve Martin's romantic jailbreak comedy Bringing Down the House locked up the box office this weekend with a cool $31.7 million* take--the third best ever March opening.
Bringing Down the House stole the No. 1 spot from this week's other new release, the war actioner Tears of the Sun, which debuted in second place with a spartan $17.2 million.
After holding on to the No. 2 spot for two weeks in a row, the laffer Old School dropped a notch to third place with a still chugging $9.2 million. Best Picture Oscar nominee Chicago gained some ground, placing fourth with a tuneful $6.9 million, while the romantic comedy How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days continued its Top Five reign with a still gallant $6.7 million.
THE TOP TEN
Buena Vista's PG-13 rated comedy Bringing Down the House won the box office crown in its debut weekend with an ESTIMATED $31.7 million at 2,801 theaters. Its $11,317 per theater average was the highest of this week's Top 10 grossing films.
In the film, a convict from the 'hood asks an uptight lawyer to help her clear her name. When he refuses, however, she turns his perfectly ordered life upside down.
Directed by Adam Shankman, it stars Steve Martin and Queen Latifah.
Sony Pictures' R rated war actioner Tears of the Sun premiered in second place with an ESTIMATED $ 17.2 million at 2,973 theaters ($5,785 per theater).
The film revolves round a Navy SEAL lieutenant and his elite band of soldiers, who are dispatched to retrieve an American doctor from Nigeria after the country's democratic government collapses.
Directed by Antoine Fuqua, it stars Bruce Willis and Monica Bellucci.
DreamWork's R rated buddy comedy Old School fell a notch to No. 3 in its third week of release with an ESTIMATED $9.2 million (-34%) at 2,707 theaters (-35 theaters). Its cume is approximately 50.8 million.
Directed by Todd Phillips, it stars Luke Wilson, Will Farrell and Vince Vaughn.
In its 11th week of release, Miramax's PG-13 rated musical Chicago continued to expand and gained a spot, coming in fourth with a still strong ESTIMATED $6.9 million (-12%) at 2,600 theaters (+153 theaters, $2,672 per theater). Its cume is approximately $114.5 million.
Directed by Rob Marshall, it stars Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere.
Paramount Pictures' PG-13 rated How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days dropped from fourth to fifth position in its fifth week of release with an ESTIMATED $7.1 million (-34%) at 2,897 theaters (-26 theaters), with a $2,330 per theater average. Its cume is approximately $86.9 million.
Directed by Donald Petrie, it stars Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey.
*Box office estimates provided by Exhibitor Relations, Inc.
Last weekend's box office champ, Warner Bros.' R-rated martial arts actioner Cradle 2 the Grave, plummeted to sixth place in its second week with an ESTIMATED $6.5 million (-60%) in 2,625 theaters (unchanged) with a $2,509 per theater average. Its cume is approximately $27 million.
Directed by Andrzej Bartkowiak, it stars DMX, Jet Li, Gabrielle Union, Anthony Anderson and Tom Arnold.
Twentieth Century Fox's PG-13 live-action comic book adaptation Daredevil fell from third to seventh place in its fourth week with an ESTIMATED $5.1 million (-54%) at 2,728 theaters (-456 theaters, $1,854 per theater). Its cume is approximately $91.4 million. The film could become the first movie this year to pass the $100 million mark.
Directed by Mark Steven Johnson, it stars Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner, Colin Farrell and Michael Clarke Duncan.
Buena Vista's G rated animated feature The Jungle Book 2 fell two notches in its fourth week with an ESTIMATED $4.2 million (-40%) at 2,553 theaters (-261 theaters, $1,645 per theater). Its cume is approximately $39.5 million.
Directed by Steven Trenbirth, it features the voices of Haley Joel Osment, John Goodman, Bob Joles and Tony Jay.
Buena Vista's PG-13 rated buddy actioner Shanghai Knights fell from seventh to ninth place in its fifth week with an ESTIMATED $2.7 million (-46%) at 1,905 theaters (-610 theaters, $1,417 per theater). Its cume is approximately $54.7 million.
Directed by Tom Dey, it stars Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson.
Rounding out the Top 10 is Universal's R rated drama The Life of David Gale, which fell two notches to eighth place in its third week of release with an ESTIMATED $2.1 million (-54%) at 1,872 theaters (-131 theaters) with a $1,122 per theater average. Its cume is approximately $17.1 million.
Directed by Alan Parker, the film stars Kevin Spacey and Kate Winslet.
The Top 12 films this weekend grossed an ESTIMATED $95.4 million, up 10.4 percent from last week when they totaled $86.4 million.
The Top 12 were up 14.81 percent from last year when they totaled $83.1 million.
Last year, DreamWorks' PG-13 rated The Time Machine debuted at the top of the box office with $22.6 million at 22,944 theaters ($7,680 per theater); Paramount's R rated We Were Soldiers came in second with $14.2 million at 3,143 theaters ($4,521 per theater); and New Line's R rated All About the Benjamins debuted in third with $10 million at 2,399 theaters ($2,932 per theater).
Bringing Down the House follows Peter Sanderson (Steve Martin) a divorced conservative workaholic tax attorney who is still hung up on his ex-wife (Jean Smart) but has little time for a social life--or his two kids (Kimberly J. Brown Angus T. Jones). His only outlet is a cyber relationship with an online chat buddy he thinks is a buxom blonde lawyer with whom he finally makes a date to meet in person. Lo and behold the buxom blonde turns out to be the ghetto fabulous Charlene (Queen Latifah) a convict who claims she's been framed for a crime and wants Peter to help clear her name. None too happy about this turn of events Peter just wants her out of his house like yesterday but this woman will not be ignored. She quickly invades his home his life and jeopardizes his career especially his efforts to woo a billion-dollar client (Joan Plowright). Is Charlene really all that bad? Of course not--she's just a misguided angel in disguise and soon she is showing Peter the error of his ways helping his family come together.
Martin once again displays his knack for physical comedy and does indeed "bring down the house" a number of times. But darn it--and I truly hate to say this--the man is just getting a too old to be bouncing around like he used to. He makes fun of his age in the film but goes ahead and dry humps Charlene on the couch in a drunken stupor or dresses up in gangsta-rap gear anyway. It's embarrassing. Martin is much better suited as the suave intelligent bitingly acerbic fellow we know and love. Perhaps he should think about doing more in the vein of his devastatingly wicked performance in David Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner. Latifah on the other hand fits in like a glove rising above the material and stealing almost every scene she is in. After snagging an Oscar nod for her juicy turn in Chicago it seems to be the Queen's year--so look out folks here she comes! The film is also briefly elevated by the hysterical supporting turns of Eugene Levy Peter's jive-talkin' associate Howie who's got a jones for Charlene; Betty White as Peter's neighbor a twisted racist version of Mrs. Kravitz from the TV show Bewitched; and Plowright as the snooty Mrs. Arness who gets high with a little help from some pot-smokin' friends in a club one of the better "stoned" scenes in recent memory.
Latifah told Entertainment Weekly that House's first draft was so heavily populated with racist characters it was "a wreck and offensive...The question was Can we make it what it needs to be?" A very good question indeed and it's pretty clear they weren't able to fix the inherent problems. It's a broad comedy pure and simple but in making us laugh apparently it is also necessary to insult our intelligence. Director Adam Shankman (A Walk to Remember; The Wedding Planner) handles the material like a bull in a china shop going straight for hackneyed jokes where nothing comes as a surprise and everything can be seen a mile away (especially if you saw the trailer). The Mary Poppins-ish theme with the brash Charlene could have been an entertaining twist on the "traveling angel" genre (a term used by screenwriting guru John Truby) where a character comes in changes everything around for the better and then leaves. Instead House unfortunately falls into staid patterns with only brief moments of hilarity.