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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A kids’ movie without the cheeky jokes for adults is like a big juicy BLT without the B… or the T. Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted may have a title that sounds like it was made up in a cartoon sequel laboratory but when it comes to serving up laughs just think of the film as a BLT with enough extra bacon to satisfy even the wildest of animals — or even a parent with a gaggle of tots in tow. Yes even with that whole "Afro Circus" nonsense.
It’s not often that we find exhaustively franchised films like the Madagascar set that still work after almost seven years. Despite being spun off into TV shows and Christmas specials in addition to its big screen adventures the series has not only maintained its momentum it has maintained the part we were pleasantly surprised by the first time around: great jokes.
In this third installment of the series – the trilogy-maker if you will – directing duo Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath add Conrad Vernon (director Monsters Vs. Aliens) to the helm as our trusty gang swings back into action. Alex the lion (Ben Stiller) Marty the zebra (Chris Rock) Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) are stuck in Africa after the hullaballoo of Madagascar 2 and they’ll do anything to get back to their beloved New York. Just a hop skip and a jump away in Monte Carlo the penguins are doing their usual greedy schtick but the zoo animals catch up with them just in time to catch the eye of the sinister animal control stickler Captain Dubois (Frances McDormand). And just like that the practically super human captain is chasing them through Monte Carlo and the rest of Europe in hopes of planting Alex’s perfectly coifed lion head on her wall of prized animals.
Luckily for pint-sized viewers Dubois’ terrifying presence is balanced out by her sheer inhuman strength uncanny guiles and Stretch Armstrong flexibility (ah the wonder of cartoons) as well as Alex’s escape plan: the New Yorkers run away with the European circus. While Dubois’ terrifying Doberman-like presence looms over the entire film a sense of levity (which is a word the kiddies might learn from Stiller’s eloquent lion) comes from the plan for salvation in which the circus animals and the zoo animals band together to revamp the circus and catch the eye of a big-time American agent. Sure the pacing throughout the first act is practically nonexistent running like a stampede through the jungle but by the time we're palling around under the big top the film finds its footing.
The visual splendor of the film (and man is there a champion size serving of it) the magnificent danger and suspense is enhanced to great effect by the addition of 3D technology – and not once is there a gratuitous beverage or desperate Crocodile Dundee knife waved in our faces to prove its worth. The caveat is that the soundtrack employs a certain infectious Katy Perry ditty at the height of the 3D spectacular so parents get ready to hear that on repeat until the leaves turn yellow.
But visual delights and adventurous zoo animals aside Madagascar 3’s real strength is in its script. With the addition of Noah Baumbach (Greenberg The Squid and the Whale) to the screenwriting team the script is infused with a heightened level of almost sarcastic gravitas – a welcome addition to the characteristically adult-friendly reference-heavy humor of the other Madagascar films. To bring the script to life Paramount enlisted three more than able actors: Vitaly the Siberian tiger (Bryan Cranston) Gia the Leopard (Jessica Chastain) and Stefano the Italian Sealion (Martin Short). With all three actors draped in European accents it might take viewers a minute to realize that the cantankerous tiger is one and the same as the man who plays an Albuquerque drug lord on Breaking Bad but that makes it that much sweeter to hear him utter slant-curse words like “Bolshevik” with his usual gusto.
Between the laughs the terror of McDormand’s Captain Dubois and the breathtaking virtual European tour the Zoosters’ accidental vacation is one worth taking. Madagascar 3 is by no means an insta-classic but it’s a perfectly suited for your Summer-at-the-movies oasis.
The morning after the Golden Globes, the Directors Guild of America heated up the awards competition by announcing its nominees for director of the year.
This year's DGA nods went to Globe winner Sam Mendes for "American Beauty,"Spike Jonze for "Being John Malkovich," Frank Darabont for "The Green Mile," Michael Mann for "The Insider" and M. Night Shyamalan for "The Sixth Sense."All are first-time feature-film nominees except for Darabont, who was nominated in 1994 for "The Shawshank Redemption."
The winner of the DGA is practically guaranteed a win for Best Director in the Academy Award race. In its 50-year history, only four winners have not gone on to win the Oscar; Anthony Harvey (in 1968 for "The Lion Winter"), Francis Ford Coppola (in 1972 for "The Godfather"), Steven Spielberg (in 1985 for "The Color Purple") and Ron Howard (in 1995 for "Apollo 13." The winner will be announced March11.
SMOKED 'LAMB': Anthony Hopkins' London house caught on fire Sunday, and 75 percent of the second floor was destroyed. Hopkins no longer lives in the residence; he actually gave it to his wife after they split in 1998, according to London's Sun. But she should not worry; firefighters still managed to save Hopkins' Academy Award for "The Silence of the Lambs."
ÜBERENGAGED: German supermodel Claudia Schiffer is officially off the market again; she's just become engaged to British boyfriend Tim Jeffries.
Jeffries, 37, proposed on one knee during a recent Caribbean holiday, and the model immediately accepted, newspapers reported Monday. The Sun said Schiffer, 29, was displaying her diamond engagement ring at a Golden Globes party over the weekend.
Schiffer was engaged for some six years to magician David Copperfield (they split in September), while Jeffries, an art-gallery owner, was married once to photographer Koo Stark, ex-girlfriend of Britain's Prince Andrew. They hope to marry later this year. No word whether Copperfield will make an appearance -- or disappearance.
THEIR TWO CENTS: The Golden Globes is always a good time to get some scoop, and the stars did some chatting at Hollywood honcho Mike Medavoy's annual pre-Globes party Friday in Los Angeles. According to the New York Daily News, winner Peter Fonda reportedly discussed sister Jane's separation from Ted Turner. "I see a very positive change in Jane now," he said. "When she told me she was separating, her entire face seemed to relax. I think she's going to be a much happier person as a result of this." He added that he hopes his sister will return to acting...
Nominee Kevin Spacey revealed that he had plans to see "Man on the Moon" and "The Hurricane" to catch Jim Carrey and Denzel Washington's respective performances so he'd be able to speak more intelligently to his fellow nominees at the awards.
"I screen-tested for 'Man on the Moon,'" The "American Beauty" star told the paper. "I'm one of the guys who went for it. Then Milos [Forman, the director] called and said he was going with . I understood completely. knew Andy Kaufman. I think he even channeled him, too. How could I competewith that?"
The party also brought a surprise late guest: President Clinton.
GOODBYE, DOLLY: At the Golden Globes on Sunday night, Cecil B. DeMille lifetime achievement award winner Barbra Streisand said she will no longer be doing concerts. The stage-shy Babs plans to do four scheduled concerts in Australia in March, "and maybe two more -- one in Los Angeles and one in New York before calling it quits on the concert stage."
"I just don't like it. I don't enjoy public performances being up on a stage,'' the 57-year-old star said. She also plans to concentrate on directing films, and has no current plans to act. Meanwhile, she and hubby James Brolin stay busy, taking road trips and walking into truck stops. How do the people react? Do they tell her she's like buttah? "They seem fine," Streisand responded.
QUICK TAKES: "American Beauty" picked up another accolade this morning, this time by the Broadcast Film Critics Association at its awards luncheon. The critics group had earlier named 10 top films but withheld its pick for the ceremony. The other contenders were "Being John Malkovich," "The Cider House Rules," "The Green Mile," "The Insider," "Magnolia," "Man on the Moon," "The Sixth Sense," "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and "Three Kings".
...Playwright Herb Gardner ("I'm Not Rappaport") has been named the recipient of the Writers Guild of America East's Ian McLellan Hunter Award, recognizing lifetime achievement in writing. The award is named in memory of WGAE Council member McLellan, who died in 1991. He will receive the prize at the guild's ceremony on March 5 ...
... Nicolas Cage's 1933 Ford hot rod sold for $77,500 at the Barrett-Jackson Classic Car Auction on Sunday. It was purchased by publishing magnate Robert E. Petersen for display at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. Elvis Presley's 1972 Lincoln Continental sold for $45,000, and Richard Carpenter, half the 1970s singing duo the Carpenters, got $70,000 for his 1957 DeSoto convertible ...
... Rosie O'Donnell will be back for this year's Grammys. The talk-show host will repeat her stint, which earned the awards their second-highest rating in six years, on Feb. 23 in Los Angeles.