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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What's love got to do with it? Hopefully nothing, if you're Season 12's much-maligned contestant, Zoanette Johnson. Because following her painful performance of the Tina Turner hit Tuesday night, Zoanette seems all but poised to become simply a footnote in Season 12's history. (That is, if the tricky Vote for the Worst doesn't catapult her into the Top 10.)
10. Sanjaya Malakar, Season 6Zoanette's Season 6 spirit animal, Sanjaya, became just as reviled for his hairstyles and unfounded arrogance as his off-key renditions of songs he should never have been singing in the first place. (See his performance of No Doubt's "Bathwater" below.) There was no more just elimination than when Sanjaya was given the boot during Top 7 week, but his off-puttingly good performance of "Bésame Mucho" proved he's not quite worth the distinction of being Idol's worst finalist of all time.
9. Carmen Rasmusen, Season 2A precursor to YouTube's hit Usher goat, Carmen bleated her way into Season 2's Top 12, despite getting cut in Hollywood earlier in the season. (She was brought back for drama's sake during the season's wildcard rounds.) And her performance in the finals only proved that Carmen should indeed have walked out the door during Hollywood Week. When Corey Clark is outperforming you, you know no beat can turn your Idol success around.
8. Ashthon Jones, Season 10True, Jones' biggest offense is being forgettable, but, oh, how forgettable was she! Season 10's 13th place finisher might have impressed the judges who picked her as their wild card thanks to her clichéd reality TV attitude, but Ashthon proved to be television Ambien during her performances of "When You Tell Me That You Love Me" and "Love All Over Me." Consider yourself lucky FremantleMedia pulled all her performances off the Web for copyright's sake.
7. Ryan Starr, Season 1It's easier to tear up the Season 1 contestant than it was for her to tear up her own clothes — Ryan's on-stage demeanor was as obnoxious as her last name, and her singing as sharp as her looks. The singer's future as a tired reality star certainly didn't help matters (she appeared in series like The Surreal Life and Battle of the Network Reality Stars), but bonus points should be rewarded for the reported behind-the-scenes brawl with fellow Season 1 maligned singer Nikki McKibbin.
6. John Stevens, Season 3The ginger crooner's audition was a welcome change of pace among Idol's diva-friendly space, but no Sinatra-esque charm will ever forgive that ear-splitting performance of Elton John's "Crocodile Rock" during Top 9 week. (Even more unforgiveable was the fact that Stevens survived the week unscathed.) In fact, Stevens' tenure on the show — during which he mangled songs like "My Girl," "As Time Goes By," and "Music of My Heart" — was so painful, his audition is the only piece of it the Internet was willing to salvage.
NEXT: The Worst Idol of All Time
5. EJay Day, Season 1The contestant was dramatically brought back to Season 1 of Idol after Delano Cagnolatti was disqualified for lying about his age, and then fell flat during his first finalist performance. Even more offensive than a waste of TV drama was the fact that Day ever shared the stage with Idol behemoth Kelly Clarkson.
4. Haley Scarnato, Season 6Yes, there was someone worse on Season 6 than Sanjaya. Say what you will about the boy wonder, but at least he proved to be a conversation starter. Scarnato, on the other hand, was just as vocally spotty as her hated Season 6 cohort, with a personality as bland as her pageant song choices. There has been no Idol contestant more worthy of the fast-forward button. Nice legs, though.
3. Camile Velasco, Season 3On Idol, the Hawaiian-born Camile sold herself as Rasta (as evidenced by the red, yellow, and green wristband she wore throughout her tenure on the show), but came off as merely raspy. Not quite the cool chick we had hoped for, Velasco trotted out hackneyed and schmaltzy songs that didn't at all fit her vocal style, like "One Last Cry," "Son of a Preacher Man," and "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" — to some, the worst performance in Idol history. A lethal combination of confusing and boring, viewers were ready to say "Aloha" to the singer after her disastrous Elton cover.
2. Paige Miles, Season 9Because there's nothing more ridiculous than claiming Michael Jackson's death was responsible for your unlistenable performance of Nat King Cole's "Smile." (And nothing more unforgiveable than being the 7th Idol to perform the groan-worthy "Against All Odds.")
1. Tim Urban, Season 9The contestant had the looks... and absolutely nothing else. Dull, unoriginal, and average, Tim was the poster boy for Season 9's sad crop of talent. The fact that we had to endure nine live performances from the six-pack-rocking teenage dream was bad enough (do you remember "Under My Thumb"? No? Good!), but the fact that he outlasted the unceremoniously booted Lilly Scott, Katelyn Epperly, and Alex Lambert was nothing but a nightmare. No one Idol contestant turned the long-running reality series into must-miss television as Tim.
[Image Credit: Michael Becker/Fox]
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A decade-long gap between sequels could leave a franchise stale but in the case of Men in Black 3 it's the launch pad for an unexpectedly great blockbuster. The kooky antics of Agent J (Will Smith) and Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) don't stray far from their 1997 and 2002 adventures but without a bombardment of follow-ups to keep the series in mind the wonderfully weird sensibilities of Men in Black feel fresh Smith's natural charisma once again on full display. Barry Sonnenfeld returns for the threequel another space alien romp with a time travel twist — which turns out to be Pandora's Box for the director's deranged imagination.
As time passed in the real world so did it for the timeline in the world of Men in Black. Picking up ten years after MIB 2 J and K are continuing to protect the Earth from alien threats and enforce the law on those who live incognito. While dealing with their own personal issues — K is at his all-time crabbiest for seemingly no reason — the suited duo encounter an old enemy Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement) a prickly assassin seeking revenge on K who blew his arm off back in the '60s. Their street fight is more of a warning; Boris' real plan is to head back in time to save his arm and kill off K. He's successful prompting J to take his own leap through the time-space continuum — and team up with a younger K (Josh Brolin) to put an end to Boris plans for world domination.
Men in Black 3 is the Will Smith show. Splitting his time between the brick personalities of Jones and Brolin's K Smith struts his stuff with all the fast-talking comedic style that made him a star in yesteryears. In present day he's still the laid back normal guy in a world of oddities — J raises an eyebrow as new head honcho O (Emma Thompson) delivers a eulogy in a screeching alien tongue but coming up with real world explanations for flying saucer crashes comes a little easier. But back in 1969 he's an even bigger fish out water. Surprisingly director Barry Sonnenfeld and writer Etan Cohen dabble in the inherent issues that would spring up if a black gentlemen decked out in a slick suit paraded around New York in the late '60s. A star of Smith's caliber may stray away from that type of racy humor but the hook of Men in Black 3 is the actor's readiness for anything. He turns J's jokey anachronisms into genuine laughs and doesn't mind letting the special effect artists stretch him into an unrecognizable Twizzler for the movie's epic time jump sequence.
Unlike other summer blockbusters Men in Black 3 is light on the action Sonnenfeld utilizing his effects budget and dazzling creature work (by the legendary Rick Baker) to push the comedy forward. J's fight with an oversized extraterrestrial fish won't keep you on the edge of your seat but his slapstick escape and the marine animal's eventual demise are genuinely amusing. Sonnenfeld carries over the twisted sensibilities he displayed in small screen work like Pushing Daisies favoring bizarre banter and elaborating on the kookiness of the alien underworld than battle scenes. MIB3's chase scene is passable but the movie in its prime when Smith is sparring with Brolin and newcomer Michael Stuhlbarg who steals the show as a being capable of seeing the future. His twitchy character keeps Smith and the audience on their toes.
Men in Black 3 digs up nostalgia I wasn't aware I had. Smith's the golden boy of summer and even with modern ingenuity keeping it fresh — Sonnenfeld uses the mandatory 3D to full and fun effect — there's an element to the film that feels plucked from another era. The movie is economical and slight with plenty of lapses in logic that will provoke head scratching on the walk out of the theater but it's also perfectly executed. After ten years of cinematic neutralizing the folks behind Men in Black haven't forgotten what made the first movie work so well. After al these years Smith continues to make the goofy plot wild spectacle and crazed alien antics look good.
Top Story: Disney Blocks Moore Documentary
The Walt Disney Co. has moved to stop its Miramax Films subsidiary from distributing Oscar-winning filmmaker Michael Moore's upcoming documentary Fahrenheit 911. The documentary touches on the personal relationship between President George H. W. Bush and Osama bin Laden's family as well as the events that led Bush and bin Laden to become enemies. According to a report Wednesday in the New York Times, Moore's agent, Ari Emanuel, said Disney CEO Michael Eisner expressed concern the release of the film would endanger tax breaks Disney receives for its theme park and hotels in Florida, where President Bush's brother, Jeb Bush, is governor. But one Disney executive denied that allegation, telling the Times the company did not want to be seen taking sides in the election and risk alienating customers of different political views. In a statement, Moore said: "I would have hoped by now that I would be able to put my work out to the public without having to experience the profound censorship obstacles I often seem to encounter. The whole story behind this (and other attempts) to kill our movie will be told in more detail as the days and weeks go on. All I can say is, thank God for [Miramax Chairman] Harvey Weinstein and Miramax, who have stood by me during the entire production of this movie." Fahrenheit 911, which was slated for release in July, will still premiere in competition at the Cannes Film Festival this month.
Idol Finalists Hit the Road
In what has become a sort of tradition, the top 10 finalists from Fox's third American Idol season have made plans for a summer North American tour. The finalists include Fantasia Barrino, Diana DeGarmo, George Huff, Jasmine Trias and La Toya London as well as the already voted out Amy Adams, Camile Velasco, Jennifer Hudson, John Stevens and Jon Peter Lewis. Reuters reports the 48-city tour will kick off July 14 in Salt Lake City and end Sept. 26 in San Jose, Calif. The two-hour American Idol season finale is scheduled for May 26.
Anna Nicole Launches Clothing Line
Former Guess? model and Playboy Playmate Anna Nicole Smith is planning to create a clothing line with the trendy outfitter Von Dutch, Extra reports. Smith, whose real name is Vickie Lynn Hogan, is currently on a world tour promoting the weight loss company Trim Spa, to which she credits having lost 69 pounds. The 36-year-old entertainer's reality TV series The Anna Nicole Show, which followed her daily misadventures, was canceled after ratings slipped from their all-time high in August 2002 when the series debuted.
Madonna Kicks Up Privacy Efforts
Madonna, meanwhile, is kicking the fight to keep hikers off her $16 million English country estate up a notch. Reuters reports a public inquiry opened Wednesday to look into whether English walkers, known across the pond as "ramblers," can saunter through Madonna and Guy Ritchie's 1,200 acre Ashcombe House estate in Dorset, southwest England--of which 100 acres has been defined as open country and therefore open to the public. The couple argues the land should be reclassified as "semi-improved" grassland because it is used for shooting game, which would define it as agricultural land and exclude it from public access. The inquiry is expected to last five days, with a verdict due this summer.
Usher Misses Chilli
R&B singer Usher recently told Rolling Stone magazine that every once in a while he thinks about calling his ex, TLC's Chilli. The two ended their highly publicized relationship earlier this year. "Sometimes I wonder what would happen if I did call [Chilli]," he said. "Would it become a good thing or would it become a bad thing? I think it's best that I don't call." The couple and Chilli's son lived in Usher's Atlanta home before the split. Chilli is now reportedly dating Baltimore Ravens football star Ray Lewis.
Emmys Test Online Voting
The Emmys will become the first major award show to offering online voting, Variety reports. The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences has sanctioned online voting for its interactive television Emmy and is pegging it as a test run for a system that may be expanded to the rest of its awards. "The technology is here, and it is only fitting that the Interactive Media Peer Group sets the precedent for online voting with this particular Emmy Award," ATAS chairman Dick Askin told Variety. "We hope it is a process that will be extended in the future to other Emmy Award categories."
Frasier May Live On
Could another incarnation of Frasier be in the works? As the long-running series comes to an end this year, Variety reports that according to industry insiders, Paramount topper Garry Hart met with NBC execs to discuss possibly extending the Frasier franchise, chronicling the next phase in Dr. Frasier Crane's life. All parties involved are declining comment, but industry insiders told Variety NBC opted against continuing the franchise, giving Paramount free reign to shop a new Frasier show to another network. It's unclear if star Kelsey Grammer would continue his Frasier character in a third series, but Grammer, who has played Frasier Crane for 20 years, has made it clear that he wouldn't have minded if Frasier continued on.
Another HIV Case Hits CA Porn Industry
A fourth adult film performer, a transsexual actress who goes by the stage name Jennifer, has tested positive for the virus that causes AIDS but the case is unrelated to an outbreak that virtually shut down pornography production last month, an industry health care official told Reuters on Tuesday. The performer had last performed a sex scene on Feb. 27 with two male actors who have since tested negative, according to Sharon Mitchell of the Adult Industry Medical Healthcare Foundation. "This is an open-and-shut case of genealogy," she told Reuters. "We think it's contained."
Role Call: Amityville Horror Revisited
British commercial director Andrew Douglas will make his feature film debut with an update of the 1979 thriller The Amityville Horror. The original, starring James Brolin, Margot Kidder and Rod Steiger, centered on a newlywed couple who move into a mysterious house where all sorts of strange things happen.
Kit Bowen contributed to this report.