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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Theatrics slapstick and cheer are cinematic qualities you rarely find outside the realm of animation. Disney perfected it with their pantheon of cartoon classics mixing music humor spectacle and light-hearted drama that swept up children while still capturing the imaginations and hearts of their parents. But these days even reinterpretations of fairy tales get the gritty make-over leaving little room for silliness and unfiltered glee. Emerging through that dark cloud is Mirror Mirror a film that achieves every bit of imagination crafted by its two-dimensional predecessors and then some. Under the eye of master visualist Tarsem Singh (The Fall Immortals) Mirror Mirror's heightened realism imbues it with the power to pull off anything — and the movie never skimps on the anything.
Like its animated counterparts Mirror Mirror stays faithful to its source material but twists it just enough to feel unique. When Snow White (Lily Collins) was a little girl her father the King ventured into a nearby dark forest to do battle with an evil creature and was never seen or heard from again. The kingdom was inherited by The Queen (Julia Roberts) Snow's evil stepmother and the fair-skinned beauty lived locked up in the castle until her 18th birthday. Grown up and tired of her wicked parental substitute White sneaks out of the castle to the village for the first time. There she witnesses the economic horrors The Queen has imposed upon the people of her land all to fuel her expensive beautification. Along the way Snow also meets Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer) who is suffering from his own money troubles — mainly being robbed by a band of stilt-wearing dwarves. When the Queen catches wind of the secret excursion she casts Snow out of the castle to be murdered by her assistant Brighton (Nathan Lane).
Fairy tales take flack for rejecting the idea of women being capable but even with its flighty presentation and dedication to the old school Disney method Mirror Mirror empowers its Snow White in a genuine way thanks to Collins' snappy charming performance. After being set free by Brighton Snow crosses paths with the thieving dwarves and quickly takes a role on their pilfering team (which she helps turn in to a Robin Hooding business). Tarsem wisely mines a spectrum of personalities out of the seven dwarves instead of simply playing them for one note comedy. Sure there's plenty of slapstick and pun humor (purposefully and wonderfully corny) but each member of the septet stands out as a warm compassionate companion to Snow even in the fantasy world.
Mirror Mirror is richly designed and executed in true Tarsem-fashion with breathtaking costumes (everything from ball gowns to the dwarf expando-stilts to ridiculous pirate ship hats with working canons) whimsical sets and a pitch-perfect score by Disney-mainstay Alan Menken. The world is a storybook and even its monsters look like illustrations rather than photo-real creations. But what makes it all click is the actors. Collins holds her own against the legendary Julia Roberts who relishes in the fun she's having playing someone despicable. She delivers every word with playful bite and her rapport with Lane is off-the-wall fun. Armie Hammer riffs on his own Prince Charming physique as Alcott. The only real misgiving of the film is the undercooked relationship between him and Snow. We know they'll get together but the journey's half the fun and Mirror Mirror serves that portion undercooked.
Children will swoon for Mirror Mirror but there's plenty here for adults — dialogue peppered with sharp wisecracks and a visual style ripped from an elegant tapestry. The movie wears its heart on its sleeve and rarely do we get a picture where both the heart and the sleeve feel truly magical.
Top Story: More Evidence Surfaces in Jackson Case
Investigators in New Jersey have seized memorabilia of pop star Michael Jackson, including Calvin Klein briefs, as evidence in the child molestation case against the singer, authorities told Reuters Monday. The owner of the items, Henry Vaccaro, told investigators he obtained the memorabilia as part of a default judgment in a lawsuit and found the items as he was repackaging the collection for resale, said Robert Honecker, a New Jersey prosecutor. Reuters reports the briefs allegedly could contain trace body fluids that might provide a sample of Jackson's DNA, but Honecker would not confirm. "That's not for me to say. It's for Santa Barbara," he said. Jackson, 45, pleaded innocent last Friday to charges of conspiring to commit child abduction, extortion and false imprisonment in a 10-count indictment handed up by a Santa Barbara County grand jury.
Pitt's Ready for His Mid-Life Crisis
Brad Pitt, starring as the tortured Achilles in the upcoming epic Troy, says he's ready for a mid-life crisis, if it ever hits. In a recent interview with Vanity Fair, the hunky actor admitted there could be a "mid-life crisis on its way," and that he is not sure "it really is in our nature to be with someone for the rest of our lives," claiming he and his wife Jennifer Aniston "always made a pact, that we'll see where this thing is going." Pitt also added, "You keep going as long as you keep growing. When that dies, we do. But it constantly surprises me. Just when you think you've gotten all you can out of it, you get knocked upside the head ... It's complicated but that's what keeps it interesting…I'm not a big proponent of happiness. I think it's highly overrated. I think misery is underrated. There's so much value in that. You can't have one without the other." Profound.
Wayans Files for Divorce
Actor/director Keenen Ivory Wayans, the eldest brother of the Wayans clan, is divorcing his wife of three years, Daphne, citing irreconcilable differences, The Associated Press reports. The couple has been married since June 2001. Wayans is requesting joint custody of his five children.
Priestley Gets Engaged
On the opposite side of that coin, former Beverly Hills 90210 pretty boy Jason Priestley, now starring in Fox's TV series Tru Calling, is getting hitched to his longtime girlfriend Naomi Lowde, AP reports. No other details of the engagement were immediately available, according to Priestley's spokeswoman Annett Wolf. Lowde is a makeup artist.
The Donald Gives Life Advice
With a new radio show, a hit TV show and oodles of money, it makes sense real estate mogul Donald Trump would publish a book handing out advice on how to get rich. AP reports Random House is releasing Think Like a Billionaire, an advice book Trump describes as a fast path to the good life and a follow-up to his current bestseller How To Get Rich. "I'm an ambitious guy," Trump said in a statement Monday. "I want to give readers everything they need to be successful in life in fewer than 300 pages."
Recording Companies To Pay Back Artists' Royalties
Under a settlement being announced today, 10 major recording companies have agreed to return nearly $50 million in unclaimed royalties to thousands of musicians including Sean Combs, Gloria Estefan and Dolly Parton. The AP reports a two-year investigation by the New York state Attorney General's office found that scores of artists were not being paid royalties because the record companies had lost contact with them. Under the agreement, recording companies will make good-faith efforts to track down artists to whom royalties are due. The companies, which include Sony Music Entertainment, Warner Music Group, Universal Music, and EMI Music Publishing, will divert any monies from artists it cannot locate to the state.
Gwen Stefani Says No Doubt Not Breaking Up
No Doubt frontwoman Gwen Stefani told Cosmopolitan magazine in its June issue that the band is not breaking up. "I thought it would be a good publicity stunt to say we were breaking up, but really we're not," she said. "We decided after our album Rock Steady that we were going to take some time apart to pursue independent projects and I really wanted to do a movie." Stefani has a small role as Jean Harlow in director Martin Scorsese's Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Stefani, however, does have a new solo album coming out in August, which she describes as "a fun, '80s-inspired, retro dance album."
Role Call: O'Donnell Rides Bus, Romano Gets Grilled, Schneider Becomes Fearless
Former talk show host Rosie O'Donnell will play a retarded woman in the CBS TV movie Riding the Bus With My Sister, based on a book by Rachel Simon. The novel chronicles Simon's relationship with her mentally retarded sister, who fills her days riding city buses … Ray Romano and Kevin James, who co-starred in early episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond before getting his own show, The King of Queens, will star in the New Line comedy Grilled for director Jason Ensler. Romano and James will play meat salesmen who stop at nothing to make a sale … Rob Schneider, meanwhile, will star in and produce the comedy Fearless for Revolution Studios. The story revolves around a meek soldier (Schneider) who is transformed into a fearless fighting machine when he becomes the subject of a top-secret experiment.
Guylaine Cadorette contributed to this report
Top Story: Messing To Miss Grace Finale
Ordered by her doctor to stay off her feet in her last months of pregnancy, Will & Grace star Debra Messing has been written out of the last four episodes of the show, including the one-hour season finale, Reuters reports. Messing's spokeswoman said the eight-month-pregnant actress is doing "great," but was told "to be careful and take it easy, preferably bed rest." She added there were no complications with the pregnancy. The season finale is set to air April 29 and centers on Karen (Megan Mullally) and her outlandish wedding to guest star John Cleese. Singer/actress Jennifer Lopez will also make a guest appearance.
Jackson's Accuser Testifies to Grand Jury
Even though the court hearings are under a media blackout, sources close to the child molestation case against Michael Jackson told The Associated Press that Jackson's 14-year-old accuser testified before the grand jury Tuesday. The hearing also included testimony from Jamie Masada, the comedy club owner who first arranged for Jackson and the boy to meet, according to AP's source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. If prosecutors obtain a grand jury indictment they would not have to present evidence at a preliminary hearing to determine if the case should go to trial.
In Other Jackson Family News…
Could wedding plans be in store for Janet Jackson and beau Jermaine Dupri? The couple spent Monday evening canoodling at a New York nightclub after Jackson's appearance on Late Night with David Letterman, AP reports. When asked if the two heard wedding bells, Dupri replied with a grin, "Y'all hear them before I do! That's what everybody is telling me!"
Hung Just Wants To Sing
Now that he's used about 14 of his 15 minutes of fame, American Idol reject William Hung, who brought new meaning to Ricky Martin's song "She Bangs," is determined more than ever to make it as a singer. Hung, who proudly said on TV that he doesn't have any professional musical training, is now very serious about his career and plans to take voice training and dance lessons. "Oh yeah, that's going to change, of course. I want to get better," he told AP Radio. Hung's new album, Inspiration, will be released April 6.
No Date Set for Klein, Holmes
Betrothed Chris Klein and Katie Holmes are having a tough time trying to fit a wedding into their busy schedules. In an interview with AP Radio, Klein believed proposing to Holmes was the natural "next step" in their five-year relationship. "I really believe it's the natural evolution of a relationship," Klein said. "As you grow up in your life, your relationships grow and mature." But the 25-year-old actor, who popped the question in December, said he and Holmes, also 25, haven't set the date yet. "What we do is very different from the normal 'nine-to-five' type of situation. We're actually apart for long stretches of time." Klein has been promoting his new movie, The United States of Leland, and Holmes has been filming the new Batman movie.
Idol, Apprentice Top Nielsens
Reality television reigned with Fox's American Idol and NBC's The Apprentice coming out on top in the ratings, AP reports. CBS won the week overall with an average of 11.5 million viewers, while NBC came in second with 10.9 million, followed by Fox (9.8 million), ABC (8 million), UPN (3.3 million) and the WB (2.7 million). For the week of March 22-28, the top 10 shows included: American Idol (Tuesday), Fox; The Apprentice, NBC; American Idol (Wednesday), Fox; CSI: Miami, CBS; Everybody Loves Raymond, CBS; 60 Minutes, CBS; Survivor: All-Stars, CBS; Friends, NBC; Two and a Half Men, CBS; Will & Grace, NBC.
Cheers Ladies Get Pilots
Former Cheers leading ladies Kirstie Alley and Shelley Long are heading back to the tube in separate pilot sitcoms. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Alley is in final negotiations to play Ricki Lake's mother in an untitled CBS comedy pilot about a young widow and her mom, who are raising the widow's two sons after the death of her policeman husband, while also running a bar frequented by cops. Long is set to star in an untitled NBC project centering on the relationship between an adult son and his newly divorced father (Tom Conti). Long will play the mother.
Role Call: Eastwood, Swank Have Baby
Oscar-winning director Clint Eastwood and actress Hilary Swank are joining forces on Million Dollar Baby. According to the Reporter, the drama, based on two short stories from the collection Rope Burn by F.X. Toole, is a tragic and platonic love story involving a woman in her early 30s who is determined to begin a boxing career and a fighter-turned-trainer. Eastwood will direct, produce as well as star.
Top Story: Lopez Tops ET's Hot List
Syndicated TV show Entertainment Tonight chose Jennifer Lopez as their No. 1 "Hot List" star of 2003, AP reports. The list is comprised of celebrities who have received the most mentions on the show during the year. Following Lopez, the remaining top 10 was as follows: Jennifer Aniston, Michael Jackson, Ben Affleck, Nicole Kidman, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz, Britney Spears and Demi Moore.
Holmes, Klein Get Engaged
Looks like wedding bells will be ringing for former Dawson's Creek star Katie Holmes and her honey, American Pie star Chris Klein, a spokesperson for the actress confirmed to People.com on Tuesday. Holmes, 25, and Klein, 24, have been dating for five years. In October, when People magazine asked Holmes of their relationship, she responded: "Things are very good. Thank God." No wedding date has been set.
254 Films Up for Academy Awards
The 76th Annual Academy Award for Best Picture will be chosen from a list of 254 feature-length films, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced Wednesday. To be eligible, a 35 mm, 70 mm or digital film must be longer than 40 minutes and have opened in a commercial theater between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31 and run for seven consecutive days. The 76th Academy Award nominations will be announced at the Academy's Samuel Goldwyn Theater on Tuesday, Jan. 27.
Singer's Death May Not Be Suicide
The stab wounds that killed singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, best known for his 1997 Oscar-nominated single "Miss Misery" from the film Good Will Hunting, could not be officially ruled as self-inflicted by the Los Angeles' coroner's office, Reuters reports. Smith, 34, who had been taking anti-depressants and medication for attention deficit disorder at the time, was found in his home in October by his live-in girlfriend, dead from what the police called a suicide. The autopsy report has now left the nature of Smith's wounds an open question. "The trauma that he sustained could have been inflicted by him or by another and the coroner has not been able to make a determination," coroner's spokesman David Campbell told Reuters. Authorities say they will keep the case open upon further investigation.
Fox Airs Simple Life Original
Fox plans to show a one-hour original episode of The Simple Life, which chronicles the lives of rich girls Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie on an Arkansas farm, Jan. 13 at 8 p.m., with the season finale to the reality series airing Jan. 14 at 8:30 p.m.
Jackson Interview Propels CBS to Ratings Win
CBS' 60 Minutes interview with Michael Jackson helped the network win the ratings race for the week of Dec. 22-28, with nearly 18.8 million viewers tuning in, the AP reports. CBS won the week, averaging 9.7 million viewers followed by ABC (8.1 million); NBC (7.3 million); Fox (6 million); the WB (2.7 million); and UPN (2.6 million). The top 10 shows were: 60 Minutes, CBS; NFL Post Game Show, CBS; NFL Monday Night Football: Green Bay at Oakand, ABC; CSI: Miami, CBS; NFL Monday Showcase, ABC; Everybody Loves Raymond, CBS; Two and a Half Men, CBS; CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, CBS; Without a Trace, CBS; Law & Order: SVU, NBC.
New Syndicated Sitcoms May Lose to Veterans
As stable comedy sitcoms such as The Bernie Mac Show and Malcolm in the Middle hit the lucrative syndication market, television analysts are saying they may have trouble against veterans such as Seinfeld, Friends and Everybody Loves Raymond. According to the Hollywood Reporter, a report on the sitcom market from New York-based consulting firm Katz Television says the new entries will be competing for slots with veteran reruns that show no signs of fading. This is bad news for sitcom producers and profit participants who usually count on raking in mega-bucks when their shows enter syndication, usually after four years. TV producer Chuck Larsen told the Reporter, "The fact is that most off-network sitcoms do a single cycle in syndication and then move on. It's very unusual to have this many sitcoms getting such healthy numbers. So if you have four classic sitcoms going through the renewal stage, they will certainly eat up shelf space and so make it more difficult for new shows to work their way onto the air."