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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Oh, the Emmys. These awards can be so crazy and unpredictable! Haha. Just kidding. That was a joke. The Emmys is sort of like a high school prom — the theme changes slightly every year and there is a different king and queen, but it's always the same party with the same streamers in the same gymnasium. That said, who would ever miss their prom?!
Certainly not me, but it does make discerning who is going to be Prom King and Queen — oh, sorry, Best Actor and Actress — kind of easy. And, just like in high school, the person holding the scepter isn't always the one who is most deserving. So, in anticipation of the Awards on Sunday, Sept. 23, here are my picks for who will win... and who should win. I didn't pick a Miss Congeniality, because we all know it would go to Heather Locklear anyway.
Best Drama Series
Game of Thrones
Will Win: Breaking Bad: The long reign of Mad Men will probably be coming to an end after four consecutive wins and the Academy will most likely reward this other critic's darling, which has a lot more punch and pizazz that voters usually like. That's what being on meth will do to ya! That is, unless these two AMC shows cannibalize each other's votes and we get another winner.
Should Win: Homeland: What this race really needed was some new blood... and there was no show bloodier than the first season of this Showtime hit. Not only was it twisty and unpredictable, it also had amazing performances and told a story that comments on the world we live in now, even a decade after 9/11.
Best Comedy Series
The Big Bang Theory
Curb Your Enthusiasm
Will Win: Modern Family: There is no doubt, this is everyone's favorite comedy. Even Ann Romney likes it! Even as it ages, there is no beating this crowd-pleaser.
Should Win: Girls: I was very skeptical of this HBO comedy when it started and I still can't stand most of the characters that populate Lena Dunham's Brooklyn, but that doesn't mean this show shouldn't be recognized. The season ended up being smart, funny, touching, insightful, and speaking to an audience that is otherwise ignored. This is one of those shows that, looking back, will be hailed as a watershed, and not just because it had a girl running through the streets on crack. Though that does help.
Best Leading Actor in a Drama Series
Hugh Bonneville, Downton Abbey
Steve Buscemi, Boardwalk Empire
Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad
Michael C. Hall, Dexter
Jon Hamm, Mad Men
Damian Lewis, Homeland
Will Win: Bryan Cranston: He's won every year he's been eligible and with good reason. Walter White is an absolute monster and it takes someone with the skill of Cranston to turn in a nuanced performance without turning him into another hammy version of Scarface. It leaves us all asking, "Malcolm in the where now?"
Should Win: Damian Lewis: Speaking of nuanced monsters, did you catch the range of emotions Lewis had to go through as a POW who may also be a secret terrorist? And he's not even an American. Does he get extra credit for the great Mid-Atlantic accent (and the shirtless scenes)?
Best Leading Actor in a Comedy Series
Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock
Don Cheadle, House of Lies
Louis C.K., Louie
Jon Cryer, Two and a Half Men
Larry David, Curb Your Enthusiasm
Jim Parsons, The Big Bang Theory
Who Will Win: Louis CK: Wow, most of these nominees are staler than the bag of Bugles that fat Betty Draper left under the couch. Mr. CK ('cause he's nasty) is the only one doing anything exciting or original these days. This will be the ultimate consolation prize for his show not winning any other awards.
Who Should Win: None of these other jokers.
Best Leading Actress in a Drama Series
Kathy Bates, Harry's Law
Glenn Close, Damages
Claire Danes, Homeland
Michelle Dockery, Downton Abbey
Julianna Margulies, The Good Wife
Elisabeth Moss, Mad Men
Who Will Win: Claire Danes: Can you say no to Angela Chase, especially with that head of preternaturally shiny hair? (It's so shiny!) But Danes did earn every vote as a trouble plagued CIA analyst who will do anything to stop a man she thinks is a terrorist. Including cussing more than a sailor who stubbed his toe.
Who Should Win: Elisabeth Moss: Another season and another great turn for Peggy Olson, especially with her arc allowing her to come into her own and leave Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce. What does this girl gotta do to win an award?
Best Leading Actress in a Comedy Series
Zooey Deschanel, New Girl
Lena Dunham, Girls
Edie Falco, Nurse Jackie
Tina Fey, 30 Rock
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Veep
Melissa McCarthy, Mike & Molly
Amy Poehler, Parks & Recreation
Who Will and Should Win: Julia Louis-Dreyfus: The Academy loves to reward a veteran and, as the only Seinfeld survivor to go on to a successful TV career, Louis-Dreyfus is definitely a vet. But it was her turn as this simultaneously harried and charismatic Vice President that makes her actually deserve this award. Her reading a PSA script from a teleprompter was done as a bit to run with the closing credits, but it was one of the funniest minutes of comedy on the air last year.
Best Miniseries or Movie
American Horror Story
Hatfields & McCoys
Hemingway & Gellhorn
Who Will Win: American Horror Story: Ryan Murphy scared the bejesus out of all of us. No, it wasn't because of the frights in this horror story, but because the show did everything a TV show shouldn't do: It had a storyline that only lasted one season, it kill off the leads, and it honed a talented acting troupe for seasons to come. His risk should pay off for the ultimate reward. No, I don't mean he'll be visited by a guy in a gimp suit (though he might like that).
Who Should Win: Hatfields & McCoys: I'm still not entirely convinced that AHS is a miniseries or movie or if it should be competing in the Best Drama category. If it's not a miniseries, then the statue should go to this crowd-pleaser, which not only brought back the genre as we used to know it, but proved it could be a gigantic hit.
Best Leading Actor in a Miniseries or Movie
Woody Harrelson, Game Change
Clive Owen, Hemingway & Gellhorn
Benedict Cumberbatch, Sherlock: A Scandal in Belgravia (Masterpiece)
Idris Elba, Luther
Kevin Costner, Hatfields & McCoys
Bill Paxton, Hatfields & McCoys
Who Will Win: Kevin Costner: The miniseries or movie categories were basically invented so that the Emmys could get movie stars to attend. And it does this with the promise of gold. It probably won't be any different this year than last year when Kate Winslet won.
Who Should Win: Idris Elba: Call it the Revenge of Stringer Bell.
Best Leading Actress in a Miniseries or Movie
Julianne Moore, Game Change
Connie Britton, American Horror Story
Nicole Kidman, Hemingway & Gellhorn
Emma Thompson, The Song of Lunch (Masterpiece)
Ashley Judd, Missing
Who Will and Should Win: Julianne Moore: With four movie stars in this category, poor Connie Britton (who is quite deserving in her own right) doesn't stand a chance. While Kidman may be the bigger star, it's Moore's stunning transformation into Sarah Palin that should rivet voters. We can almost see her winning from our house.
Best Reality Competition
The Amazing Race
Dancing With The Stars
So You Think You Can Dance
Who Will Win: Amazing Race: Ugh, again! When will it end?
Who Should Win: Anyone else: Amazing Race has been a snooze since the Bush Administration, but Academy voters don't know any other shows and think an around the world vacation with their significant other sure looks fun. That's why they keep voting for this. Enough! There are plenty of reality shows on TV — choose someone else! I would go with The Voice, for being the only show to shake up the singing competition formula with any real results.
Best Reality Host
Tom Bergeron, Dancing With The Stars
Cat Deeley, So You Think You Can Dance
Phil Keoghan, The Amazing Race
Ryan Seacrest, American Idol
Betty White, Betty White's Off Their Rockers
Who Will Win: Betty White: The Academy thinks she needs one more trophy before her retirement (or something worse). Also, they have absolutely no respect for the reality categories. For shame!
Who Should Win: Cat Deeley: If you do not think this leggy Brit who is as quick with a punchline as she is with a compassionate shoulder for contestants to cry on doesn't deserve to win, then you are an idiot with no eyes. There, I said it. Speaking of no eyes, she also chooses all her own outfits and they are often – how should I put this? – unique. We need her to show up on stage wearing one.
Best Variety Program
The Colbert Report
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
Jimmy Kimmel Live!
Late Night with Jimmy Fallon
Real Time with Bill Maher
Saturday Night Live
Who Will Win: The Daily Show with Jon Stewart: I just got off the phone with 2018 and it's still going to win then too. Just accept it.
Who Should Win: Late Night with Jimmy Fallon: You have to appreciate the daffy way he creates viral videos with everything from Barack Obama to the Real Housewives franchise. This is a man who knows that the future of the genre is as much on YouTube as it is on the boob tube.
Best Supporting Actor in a Drama Series
Aaron Paul, Breaking Bad
Giancarlo Esposito, Breaking Bad
Brendan Coyle, Downton Abbey
Jim Carter, Downton Abbey
Jared Harris, Mad Men
Peter Dinklage, Game of Thrones
Who Will and Should Win: Giancarlo Esposito: One of the most terrifying villains on television didn't yell and scream and shoot up the place. He took over with quiet determination and a calm exterior that belied a deadly inner life. Esposito's Gus Fring was a study in self-restraint and his end will go down in TV history.
Best Supporting Actress in a Drama Series
Archie Panjabi, The Good Wife
Anna Gunn, Breaking Bad
Maggie Smith, Downton Abbey
Joanne Froggatt, Downton Abbey
Christina Hendricks, Mad Men
Christine Baranski, The Good Wife
Who Will and Should Win: Christina Hendricks: She's long been known for the curves of her body, but this season, it was the curveballs her character threw when she decided to kick out her husband, take her destiny in her own hands, and finally get herself on equal footing with the men (of course, only by making a horrible sacrifice). She's made her portrayal of one of the most complicated women on TV look absolutely easy, so it's about time she had a busty gold lady of her own.
Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series
Ed O'Neill, Modern Family
Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Modern Family
Ty Burrell, Modern Family
Eric Stonestreet, Modern Family
Bill Hader, Saturday Night Live
Max Greenfield, New Girl
Who Will Win: Someone from Modern Family: Just pick one. Does it matter. Maybe Ed O'Neill. Is it his turn yet? Fine, then Ty Burrell. Whatever.
Who Should Win: Max Greenfield: It's a hard job stealing a show called The New Girl while having a Y chromosome, but Greenfield's fully-realized Schmidt was the character who audiences really wanted to see, even as they knew he should be stuffing $10s into the douche jar.
Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series
Mayim Bialik, The Big Bang Theory
Merritt Wever, Nurse Jackie
Julie Bowen, Modern Family
Kristen Wiig, Saturday Night Live
Sofia Vergara, Modern Family
Kathryn Joosten, Desperate Housewives
Who Will Win: Mayim Bialik: Since the boys will be shut out in the acting category, it looks like good old Blossom's work as one of this show's girl geeks is going to get some deserved attention. But look for a possible Kristen Wiig upset for her final season on SNL.
Who Should Win: Merritt Wever: She's long been the funniest thing on Nurse Jackie and she should finally get some recognition for a character that is just on the right side of wacky and vulnerable when she needs to be. If she doesn't get nominated more often, the Academy is on more drugs than Jackie.
Best Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or Movie
Sarah Paulson, Game Change
Frances Conroy, American Horror Story
Jessica Lange, American Horror Story
Judy Davis, Page Eight (Masterpiece)
Mare Winningham, Hatfields & McCoys
Who Will and Should Win: Jessica Lange: There is no one we'd rather watch chew the scenery and destroy lives with a syrupy southern accent than Ms. Jessica Lange. Also, remember the rule about giving these trophies to movie stars?
Best Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or Movie
Ed Harris, Game Change
Denis O'Hare, American Horror Story
David Strathairn, Hemingway & Gellhorn
Martin Freeman, Sherlock: A Scandal in Belgravia (Masterpiece)
Tom Berenger, Hatfields & McCoys
Who Will Win: Ed Harris: I honestly have no idea on this one, but the fact that Ed Harris has been nominated for an Oscar and is competing in a category for movie stars makes him the best bet. Who Should Win: Denis O'Hare: Between Larry Harvey and his Russell Edgington on True Blood, this hard-working character actor finally deserves to scare up a trophy. Scare up. Get it? Follow Brian Moylan on Twitter @BrianJMoylan [Photo Credit: Wenn] More: 2012 Emmy Awards: See the Full List of Nominees! Emmys 2012: 10 Burning Questions! Emmys 2012: Snubs, Shockers and Surprises!
In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.
It's a big day for indie film appreciation. First, last night's 21st Annual Gotham Independent Film Awards recipients were revealed (you can read the list of winners and nominees here). And now, we can cast our judgments and make our predictions about the announcements for the 27th Annual Independent Spirit Awards nominations.
2011 was no slouch when it comes to the release of some quality independent cinema, and the Spirit Awards are paying tribute to that with its diverse list of nominees. On the list, we have comedy, drama, action, romance...and, for the first time in quite a while, a silent film. Check out the list of nominees below, and start your deliberations on the "Who Should Win" vs. "Who Will Win" battle—that's the bread-and-butter of awards season, after all.
27th ANNUAL INDEPENDENT SPIRIT AWARDS NOMINEES
BEST PICTURE50/50 The Artist Beginners The Descendants Drive Take Shelter BEST DIRECTOR Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist) Mike Mills (Beginners) Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter) Alexander Payne (The Descendants) Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive) BEST FIRST FEATURE Mike Cahill, Another Earth Patrick Wang, In the Family J.C Chandor, Margin Call Sean Durkin, Martha Marcy May Marlene Robert Pickering, Natural Selection BEST FEMALE LEAD Lauren Ambrose (Think of Me) Rachael Harris (Natural Selection) Adepero Oduye (Pariah) Elizabeth Olson (Martha Marcy May Marlene) Michelle Williams (My Week with Marilyn) BEST MALE LEAD Demian Bichir (A Better Life) Jean Dujardin (The Artist) Ryan Gosling (Drive) Woody Harrelson (Rampart) Michael Shannon (Take Shelter) BEST SUPPORTING FEMALE Jessica Chastain (Take Shelter) Anjelica Huston (50/50) Janet McTeer (Albert Nobbs) Harmony Santana (Gun Hill Road) Shailene Woodley (The Departed) BEST SUPPORTING MALE Albert Brooks (Drive) John Hawkes (Martha Marcy May Marlene) Christopher Plummer (Beginners) John C. Reilly (Cedar Rapids) Corey Stoll (Midnight in Paris) BEST SCREENPLAY The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius) Beginners (Mike Mills) The Descendants (Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon & Jim Rash) Footnote (Joseph Cedar) Win Win (Tom McCarthy) BEST FIRST SCREENPLAY Mike Cahill & Brit Marling, Another Earth J.C. Chandor, Margin Call Patrick deWitt, Terri Phil Johnston, Cedar Rapids Will Reiser, 50/50 BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY Joel Hodge (Bellflower) Benjamin Kasulke (The Off Hours) Darius Khondji (Midnight in Paris) Guillaume Schiffman (The Artist) Jeffrey Waldron (The Dynamiter) BEST DOCUMENTARY An African Election Bill Cunningham New York The Interrupters The Redemption of General Butt Naked We Were Here Spirit Awards