Scarlett Johansson, Lena Dunham and Mark Ruffalo are among the stars who have signed a letter to New York City politicians urging them to protect arts programs in local schools. The actors have all added their names to a missive addressed to New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina and Mayor Bill de Blasio, along with director Lee Daniels, playwright David Auburn, former Law & Order star Richard Brooks, and Broadway veteran Danny Burstein.
The letter asks the politicians to set aside funding for arts programs in New York City schools in a bid to protect them from cuts, highlighting the importance of drama, dance and music classes for youngsters.
It reads, "We write today to... urge that the Department of Education set aside the necessary funding in the City budget to ensure that every New York City public school has a certified arts teacher and rich cultural partnerships, as part of a comprehensive curriculum.
"As professional artists and performers, we all remember the first person who opened our eyes to the magic and wonder of the arts... The arts not only build texture and depth into the City's landscape, they also help us connect to others in unique and powerful ways, and push us to grow.. We urge the Department of Education to ensure that every public school student has the chance to engage in a vibrant arts education. Let's make sure that New York City is home to tomorrow's great artists, just as it is today."
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.
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.
Maybe it was the 3-D glasses that helped, but the game went into overtime this weekend for Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over.The third installment in the franchise about a family of super spies took the top spot with a healthy $32.5 million*, making it the highest opener of the three. The first Spy Kids opened 2001 with $26.5 million, while the second, Spy Kids: Island of Lost Dreams, opened 2002 with $18.7 million. The ghostly swashbuckler Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl held on to second place with $22.4 million while the naughty actioner Bad Boys II dropped from the top of the heap last week to third with $22 million, barely slipping under Pirates .Not as many people, however, cared to see Angelina Jolie strut her stuff again. The outrageously stunt-laden sequel Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life opened at No. 4 with $21.7 million, making less than half of what the original 2001 smash hit Lara Croft: Tomb Raider did when it opened at $47.7 million. The heart-tugging Depression drama Seabiscuit rounded out the top five's home stretch with $21.5 million, though it managed to take the highest per average screening award; opening in 1,989 theaters, its $10,809 per theater average was the highest of any film playing wide this weekend.Other notable indies opening this week included the Bob Dylan starrer Masked and Anonymous, which debuted at $32,167, and the controversial Buffalo Soldiers at $29,000.Overall, box office numbers were up this week, nearly 10 percent from the same weekend last year and nearly 6 percent from last weekend. THE TOP TENDimension Films' PG-rated Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over premiered at the top of the box office with an ESTIMATED $32.5 million in 3,344 theaters ($9,719 per theater).In this third installment, junior agents Juni and Carmen Cortez have to go into a video game and shut it down before it and its creator can take over the world.Written and directed by Robert Rodriguez, it stars Alexa Vega, Daryl Sabara, Sylvester Stallone, Salma Hayek and Ricardo Montalban.Buena Vista Pictures' PG-13 rated fantasy actioner Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl held on to second in its third week with an ESTIMATED $22.4 million (-34%) at 3,416 theaters (+57 theaters; $6,557 per theater). Its cume is $176.1 million.Directed by Gore Verbinski and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, it stars Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley.Sony Picture's R rated buddy actioner Bad Boys II dropped from its first place perch to third with an ESTIMATED $22 million (-53%) at 3,202 theaters (+16 theaters; $6,871 per theater). This high-octane sequel, which follows narcotics detectives Mike Lowry and Marcus Burnett in another case, has made $88.4 million so far.Directed by Michael Bay, it stars Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, Jordi Molla, Gabrielle Union and Peter Stormare.Paramount Pictures' PG-13-rated action-packed Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life debuted at a disappointing fourth place with an ESTIMATED $21.7 million in 3,222 theaters ($6,754 per theater).In her latest adventure pic, Lara Croft journeys to an underwater temple in search of lost treasures. During her expedition, she stumbles upon a sphere that contains the key to Pandora's box.Directed by Jan De Bont, it stars Angelina Jolie, Gerald Butler, Chris Barrie, Ciaran Hinds and Noah Taylor.Universal Pictures' PG-13-rated tear-jerker Seabiscuit opened with an ESTIMATED $21.5 million in 1,989 theaters. Its $10,809 per theater was the highest average of any film playing wide this week.Set in the 1930s, this is a true story about a down-and-out racehorse named Seabiscuit pulled out of obscurity by three men and turned into a national hero.Directed by Gary Ross, it stars Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges and Chris Cooper. *Box office estimates provided by Exhibitor Relations, Inc.As the box office numbers dropped off considerably, Warner Bros.' R rated sci-fi actioner Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines fell two places to No. 6 in its fourth week with an ESTIMATED $5 million (-46%) at 2,689 theaters (-744; $1,895 per theater). Its cume is approximately $137.4 million.Directed by Jonathan Mostow, it stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, Nick Stahl, Claire Danes and Kristanna Loken.Twentieth Century Fox's PG-13 rated period thriller The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen crashed four places to come in seventh place in its third week with an ESTIMATED $4.8 million (-52%) at 2,532 theaters (-470; $1,919 per theater). Its cume is approximately $52.7 million.Directed by Stephen Norrington, it stars Sean Connery, Naseeruddin Shah, Peta Wilson, Tony Curran, Stuart Townsend, Shane West and Jason Flemyng.Universal Pictures' PG rated spy spoof Johnny English slipped three places to No. 8 in its second week with an ESTIMATED $4.3 million (53%) at 2,236 theaters ($1,923 per theater). Its cume is 18.4 million.In the film, the British Secret Service calls upon bumbling secret agent Johnny English when a plan to filch the monarchy's Crown Jewels comes to their attention.Directed by Peter Howitt, it stars Rowan Atkinson, Natalie Imbruglia, Ben Miller and John Malkovich.Buena Vista/Disney and Pixar Animation Studios' G rated computer-animated feature Finding Nemo fell three spots in its ninth week to No. 9 with an ESTIMATED $4 million (-45%) at 2,025 theaters (-455 theaters; $1,975 per theater). Its cume is approximately $312.6 million.Directed and co-written by Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton, it features the voices of Albert Brooks, Ellen DeGeneres, Alexander Gould, Willem Dafoe and Brad Garrett.MGM's PG-13 rated Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde rounded out the top ten in its fourth week with an ESTIMATED $2.6 million (-57%) at 2,120 theaters (-1,085 theaters; $1,250 per theater). Its cume is approximately $82.1 million. Directed by Charles Herman-Wurmfeld, it stars Reese Witherspoon, Sally Field, Regina King, Bob Newhart and Jennifer Coolidge. OTHER OPENINGSSony Pictures Classics' PG-13-rated Masked and Anonymous debuted with an ESTIMATED $32,167 in 4 theaters ($8,042 per theater). Set somewhere, sometime in an unnamed country torn by civil war, concert promoter Uncle Sweetheart is scheming to find a headliner for a benefit show--benefitting himself, that is. Veteran TV producer Nina Veronica is put on the job to make sure the concert is an international spectacle. The clincher? Uncle Sweetheart manages to get the iconic cult star Jack Fate, just released from prison, to perform.Directed by Larry Charles, it stars John Goodman, Jessica Lange, Luke Wilson, Jeff Bridges, Angela Bassett and Bob Dylan, in his screen debut.Miramax Film's R-rated Buffalo Soldiers opened with an ESTIMATED $29,000 in 6 theaters ($4,833 per theater).In Stuttgart, West Germany in 1989, just as the Berlin Wall is about to fall, Ray Elwood of the 317th Supply Battalion has turned his military servitude into a blossoming network of black market deals--more out of boredom than ambition. When a new top sergeant arrives with the avowed intention of cleaning up the base, Elwood thinks can handle the new blood. If he could only find out what to do with the $5 million in stolen arms that just landed in his lap…Directed by Gregor Jordan, it stars Joaquin Phoenix, Scott Glenn, Anna Paquin and Ed Harris.WEEKEND COMPARISONThe Top 12 films this weekend grossed an ESTIMATED $145.5 million, up 9.91 percent from last year's take of $132.4 million. The Top 12 films were also up 5.20 percent from last weekend when they grossed $138.3 million.Last year's top three included: New Line Cinema's PG-13-rated Austin Powers in Goldmember debuted on top with $73 million in 3,613 theaters ($20,225 per theater); DreamWorks' R rated drama Road to Perdition came in second in its third week of release with $11.1 million at 2,250 theaters (+91 theaters; $4,936 per theater average), Sony's G rated Stuart Little 2 dropped to third in its second week with $10.6 million at 3,282 theaters (+ 27; $3,233 per theater).
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From his side-splitting 1968 original film writer/director Mel Brooks created one of the funnier comedy duos. Max Bialystock (Nathan Lane) is a washed-up Broadway producer who has to shtup little old ladies in order to get investments for his shows. Leo Bloom (Matthew Broderick) is a hypersensitive nerdy accountant who gives Max a brilliant idea: producing a flop could procure more money than a hit. Max then suckers Leo into joining him in the perfect plan of embezzling money and skipping town with the cash after finding the most god-awful musical to produce. That would be “Springtime for Hitler” by former Nazi Franz Liebkind (Will Ferrell). They also hire talentless director Roger DeBris (Gary Beach) and employ a blonde Swedish bombshell named Ulla (Uma Thurman) just for the heck of it. But what they think is a sure-fire dud turns out to be a smash success instead. D’oh! The Producers definitely has the advantage of using the original stars from the Broadway hit. Lane and Broderick are like a well-oiled comedy machine having played Bialystock and Bloom off and on since the musical opened on stage in April 2001. Lane simply slays you. As does Beach as the spirited DeBris and the gut-bustingly hysterical Roger Bart as DeBris’ common-law assistant Carmen Ghia. But there are some disadvantages as well. There is at times a fresh quality lacking in the performances especially from Broderick who looks he’s on auto pilot. Thankfully the two newcomers to the fray--Ferrell and Thurman--give The Producers that extra sparkle. Ferrell just pours it on as the crazy German while the luminous Thurman well shakes and shimmies like she was born for the stage. You realize of course Mel Brooks is really just a frustrated musical theater guy at heart. Getting the chance to turn his 1968 cult classic into a full-blown Broadway extravaganza must have been a dream come true. Even though he wrote all of the music and lyrics including two original songs for the movie he wisely hands over the directing reins to Tony Award-winning director/choreographer Susan Stroman. In her capable hands The Producers goes from stage musical to big-screen spectacle with relative ease. It could have perhaps shed a few of the musical interludes especially towards the end for the sake of making it a tighter film but all in all a truly worthy effort. I guess maybe the only problem is those of us nostalgic for the original film. It was just so exquisitely priceless in so many ways seeing it turned into a campy musical somehow just doesn’t do it justice.