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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This episode marks the last night of this season’s blind auditions. I, for one, am profoundly disappointed by the utter lack of blindness puns in the songs our hopefuls have chosen — no “Blinded by the Light,” no “I Can See Clearly Now,” nor nearly enough selections from the catalogs of Blind Melon, Third Eye Blind, and Stevie Wonder. Maybe our last crop of contestants won’t disappoint.
Natalie Hernandez skipped both her prom and her brother’s graduation — guess they filmed this at least three months ago — to audition for The Voice, making this the climactic scene in the teen movie that is her life. (Then again, when you’re 15, every day is the climactic scene in the teen movie that is your life.)
Her earthy, distinctive voice shines on “White Horse,” turning around Adam, Blake, and Christina.
Natalie’s Result: Team Christina
The producers offer yet another defrosted pop star in Rod Michael, whose boy band B3 won fame in Germany — on a scale of 1 to Hasselhoff, maybe a 2.5 — but no recognition back home. You know a group didn’t make it too big when it doesn’t appear until the third page of Google search results for its name. (Coincidentally, were you aware that B3 is the vitamin niacin, as well as the name of a city bus route in Brooklyn? The More You Know™.)
Rod’s adequate version of “Please Don’t Go” has the ladies in the house screaming, but overall, he’s simply not a standout.
Rod’s Result: Team Nobody
Caitlin Michelle says that she discovered she could sing at the age of five, which raises the question, “What 5-year-old doesn’t think he or she can sing?” A victim of intense anxiety attacks, she has found solace in music throughout her life. But I don’t know, man. When I hear “panic disorder,” I don’t think “career in show business.”
I like her retro microphone tattoo and winged eyeliner, a look perfectly complemented by her male friend backstage (siblings, or dating?) and his handlebar mustache. Caitlin brings a dramatic, bold flair to Florence + the Machine’s “Cosmic Love,” though it doesn't seem like an ideal song to showcase her voice.
Caitlin’s Result: Team Adam
A modern-day Mozart, Nicole Johnson wrote her first song at age seven (her mom doesn’t go into detail, but I think we can safely assume it was a full symphony).
Her family moved to Nashville from Louisiana so she could better pursue her music career — listening to Nicole’s buttery-smooth “Mr. Know-It-All,” it seems like that might not have been a huge mistake.
Nicole’s Result: Team Blake
Kameron Corvet, a middle-school French teacher, sings — surprisingly — something other than “Frère Jacques.” Self-accompanied on guitar, he offers a cover of “Crazy” (not the Gnarls Barkley “Crazy,” unfortunately) that’s good, but not good enough.
Kameron’s Result: Team Nobody
Chevonne sang back-up on Lady Gaga’s Monster Ball tour, which is impressive, but it’s this video that I just found on YouTube that’s led me to declare myself a Little Chevonnester (the first ever?).
Her “Brass in Pocket” — oh my god, I love this song, y’all — is a lot of fun, and not unlike Gaga in style.
Chevonne’s Result: Team Cee Lo
Seventeen-year-old Kayla Nevarez credits her father for fostering her interest in soul, R&B, and “doo-wops and stuff.” Sadly, he isn’t here to cheer her on because he’s ailing from a serious liver disease — a crisis that has placed financial and emotional stress on their family. She sends a tearful greeting to him back at the hospital, and because I am a horrible person, I find myself considering the possibility that he may have died since this episode was recorded.
The coaches go crazy for Kayla’s “American Boy,” and rightly so. I love this song (although I have to ask — it might just be that I’m a freakish giantess — but whose ideal man is 5’7”, Estelle?), and Kayla masterfully handles its fast, conversational pace.
“I’m your coach,” Christina informs her, seemingly unwilling to take no for an answer — too bad, because a no it is.
Kayla’s Result: Team Adam [and he’s full!]
Still only 16, Celica Westbrook was offered a place on a Bieber tour two years ago, but it didn’t pan out — we’re never told exactly why, so I can only guess that it’s because she got Justin pregnant. Also, “Celica?” It’s like her parents picked a first name out of a hat full of Toyota models, and a last name out of a hat full of prominent NBA players.
Camry Durant’s mature, effortless cover of “A Thousand Years” sets off a feeding frenzy among the three judges with spots remaining in their teams.
Celica’s Result: Team Christina [and she’s full!]
Jessica Cayne, a full-time musician from Georgia, has struggled all her life with insecurity and weight issues. She brings a bad-girl twang to “Good Girl” (honey, why you insecure when you pretty and you sing real nice?), but she goes unchosen. I have to say I’m actually bummed that no one picked her (ahem, BLAKE).
Jessica’s Result: Team Nobody
(Suddenly, Cee Lo’s cockatoo is perched on his head. I wish I could tell you what he’s saying, but I have no idea, because as I said, Cee Lo’s cockatoo is perched on his head.)
Forty-six-year-old Rudy Parris began playing music in the 1970s, but took a step back from his career to raise his daughter. Now a grandfather — though his long, jet-black hair might have you doubting that — he’s ready to give it another try.
A cover of “Every Breath You Take” reveals his full-bodied country vocals, and I’m not surprised to hear that he’s toured with Hank Williams III (whose real first name, Blake hammily points out, is Shelton).
Rudy’s Result: Team Blake [and he’s full!]
Cody Belew, the improbably (and charmingly) flamboyant son of a bull rider, believes that he must have been “an elderly black lady” in a past life. Of all the coaches, Cody prefers Cee Lo, admiring his innate sense of crazy.
His better-than-competent cover of “Hard to Handle” earns a last-second button-press from Cee Lo. Cody at first doesn’t realize that Cee Lo has chosen him, so when he finally does, he lets loose with a joyful barrage of (heavily bleeped) celebratory cursing. Cody might not win The Voice, but he’s certainly No. 1 in terms of s-grenades launched on air.
Cody’s Result: Team Cee Lo [and he’s full!]
Tonight, The Voice is back with The Best of the Blind Auditions. The battle rounds begin next Monday; I’ll be preparing myself by reading books of World War I poetry and quietly weeping. Dulce et decorum est pro patria cantare.
Find me on Twitter @mollyfitz.
[Image Credit: NBC] More: The Voice Recap: That’ll Do, Pig The Voice Recap: Ain’t That Some Shhh? The Voice Will Keep Singing for Two More Seasons, Gets New Judges
In This Means War – a stylish action/rom-com hybrid from director McG – Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises) and Chris Pine (Star Trek) star as CIA operatives whose close friendship is strained by the fires of romantic rivalry. Best pals FDR (Pine) and Tuck (Hardy) are equally accomplished at the spy game but their fortunes diverge dramatically in the dating realm: FDR (so nicknamed for his obvious resemblance to our 32nd president) is a smooth-talking player with an endless string of conquests while Tuck is a straight-laced introvert whose love life has stalled since his divorce. Enter Lauren (Reese Witherspoon) a pretty plucky consumer-products evaluator who piques both their interests in separate unrelated encounters. Tuck meets her via an online-dating site FDR at a video-rental store. (That Lauren is tech-savvy enough to date online but still rents movies in video stores is either a testament to her fascinating mix of contradictions or more likely an example of lazy screenwriting.)
When Tuck and FDR realize they’re pursuing the same girl it sparks their respective competitive natures and they decide to make a friendly game of it. But what begins as a good-natured rivalry swiftly devolves into romantic bloodsport with both men using the vast array of espionage tools at their disposal – from digital surveillance to poison darts – to gain an edge in the battle for Lauren’s affections. If her constitutional rights happen to be violated repeatedly in the process then so be it.
Lauren for her part remains oblivious to the clandestine machinations of her dueling suitors and happily basks in the sudden attention from two gorgeous men. Herein we find the Reese Witherspoon Dilemma: While certainly desirable Lauren is far from the irresistible Helen of Troy type that would inspire the likes of Tuck and FDR to risk their friendship their careers and potential incarceration for. At several points in This Means War I found myself wondering if there were no other peppy blondes in Los Angeles (where the film is primarily set) for these men to pursue. Then again this is a film that wishes us to believe that Tom Hardy would have trouble finding a date so perhaps plausibility is not its strong point.
When Lauren needs advice she looks to her boozy foul-mouthed best friend Trish (Chelsea Handler). Essentially an extension of Handler’s talk-show persona – an acquired taste if there ever was one – Trish’s dialogue consists almost exclusively of filthy one-liners delivered in rapid-fire succession. Handler does have some choice lines – indeed they’re practically the centerpiece of This Means War’s ad campaign – but the film derives the bulk of its humor from the outrageous lengths Tuck and FDR go to sabotage each others’ efforts a raucous game of spy-versus-spy that carries the film long after Handler’s shtick has grown stale.
Business occasionally intrudes upon matters in the guise of Heinrich (Til Schweiger) a Teutonic arms dealer bent on revenge for the death of his brother. The subplot is largely an afterthought existing primarily as a means to provide third-act fireworks – and to allow McGenius an outlet for his ADD-inspired aesthetic proclivities. The film’s action scenes are edited in such a manic quick-cut fashion that they become almost laughably incoherent. In fairness to McG he does stage a rather marvelous sequence in the middle of the film in which Tuck and FDR surreptitiously skulk about Lauren's apartment unaware of each other's presence carefully avoiding detection by Lauren who grooves absentmindedly to Montel Jordan's "This Is How We Do It." The whole scene unfolds in one continuous take – or is at least craftily constructed to appear as such – captured by one very agile steadicam operator.
Whatever his flaws as a director McG is at least smart enough to know how much a witty script and appealing leads can compensate for a film’s structural and logical deficiencies. He proved as much with Charlie’s Angels a film that enjoys a permanent spot on many a critic’s Guilty Pleasures list and does so again with This Means War. The film coasts on the chemistry of its three co-stars and only runs into trouble when the time comes to resolve its romantic competition which by the end has driven its male protagonists to engage in all manner of underhanded and duplicitous activities. This Means War being a commercial film – and likely an expensive one at that – Witherspoon's heroine is mandated to make a choice and McG all but sidesteps the whole thorny matter of Tuck and FDR’s unwavering dishonesty not to mention their craven disregard for her privacy. (They regularly eavesdrop on her activities.) For all their obvious charms the truth is that neither deserves Lauren – or anything other than a lengthy jail sentence for that matter.
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The first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.