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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The trailers for Hope Springs might lead you to believe it's a romantic comedy about a couple trying to jumpstart their sexless marriage but it causes more empathetic cringing than chuckles. Audiences will be drawn to Hope Springs by its stars Meryl Streep Tommy Lee Jones and Steve Carell and Streep's track record of pleasing summer movies like Julie & Julia and Mamma Mia! that offer a respite from the blockbusters flooding theaters. Despite what its marketing might have you believe Hope Springs isn't a rom-com. The film is a disarming mixture of deeply intimate confessions by a married couple in the sanctuary of a therapist's office awkwardly honest attempts by that couple to physically reconnect and incredibly sappy scenes underscored by intrusive music. Boldly addressing female desire especially in older women it's hard not to give the movie extra credit for what writer Vanessa Taylor's script is trying to convey and its rarity in mainstream film. The ebb and flow of intimacy and desire in a long-term relationship is what drives Hope Springs and while there are plenty contrived moments and unresolved issues it is frankly surprising and surprisingly frank. It's a summer release from a major studio with high caliber stars aimed squarely at the generally underserved 50+ audience addressing the even more taboo topic of that audience's sex life.
Streep plays Kay a suburban wife who's deeply unsatisfied emotionally and sexually by her marriage to Arnold. Arnold who is played by Tommy Lee Jones as his craggiest sleeps in a separate bedroom now that their kids have left the nest; he's like a stone cold robot emotionally and physically and Kay tiptoes around trying to make him happy even as he ignores her every gesture. One of the most striking scenes in the movie is at the very beginning when Kay primps and fusses over her modest sleepwear in the hopes of seducing her husband. Streep makes it obvious that this isn't an easy thing for Kay; it takes all her guts to try and wordlessly suggest sex to her husband and when she's shot down it hurts to watch. This isn't a one time disconnect between their libidos; this is an ongoing problem that leaves Kay feeling insecure and undesirable.
After a foray into the self-help section of her bookstore Kay finds a therapist who holds week-long intensive couples' therapy sessions in Good Hope Springs ME and in a seemingly unprecedented moment of decisiveness she books a trip for the couple. Arnold of course is having none of it but he eventually comes along for the ride. That doesn't mean he's up for answering any of Dr. Feld's questions though. To be fair Dr. Feld (Carell) is asking the couple deeply intimate questions so if Arnold is comfortable foisting his amorous wife off with the excuse he had pork for lunch it's not so far-fetched to believe he'd be angry when Feld asks him about his fantasy life or masturbation habits.
Although Arnold gets a pass on some of his issues Kay is forthright about why and how she's dissatisfied. When Dr. Feld asks her if she masturbates she says she doesn't because it makes her too sad. Kay offers similar revelations; she's willing to bare it all to revive her marriage while Arnold thinks the fact that they're married at all means they must be happy. Carell's Dr. Feld is soothing and kind (even a bit bland) but it's always a pleasure to see him play it straight.
It's subversive for a mega-watt star to play a character that talks about how sexually unsatisfied she is and how unsexy she feels with the man she loves most in the world. The added taboo of Kay and Arnold's age adds that much more to the conversation. Kay and Arnold's attempts at intimacy are emotionally raw and hard to watch. Even when things get funny they're mostly awkward funny not ha-ha funny.
The rest of the movie is a little uneven wrapped up tightly and happily by the end. Their time spent soul-searching alone is a little cheesy especially when Kay ends up in a local bar where she gets a little dizzy on white wine while dishing about her problems to the bartender (Elisabeth Shue). Somewhere along the line what probably started out as a character study ended up as a wobbly drama that pushes some boundaries but eventually lets everyone off the emotional hook in favor of a smoothed-over happy ending. Still its disarming moments and performances almost balance it out. Although its target audience might be dismayed to find it's not as light-hearted as it would seem Hope Springs offers up the opportunity for discussion about sexuality and aging at a time when books and films like 50 Shades of Grey and Magic Mike are perking up similar conversations. In the end that's a good thing.
S11E2: Stop two on the American Idol audition train is Pittsburgh – and because of Fox’s new series The Finder we only get an hour of auditions. I’m going to go ahead and assume the shortened timeslot is the reason behind the lack of the usual dose of crazies. We’re introduced to the steel city the only possible: with Wiz Khalifa’s “Black and Yellow” playing over the montage of contestants. Ryan Seacrest’s voiceover tells us that this is the “city of champions” and he may be right about the sports teams, but as for Idol, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. These are just the auditions, if anything, Pittsburgh is the city of people waving crinkly, yellow pieces of paper (with promise)!
“I think you could be an American Idol.” –Steven
This poor guy comes in, sees the other great singers and immediately feels inadequate. That typical Idol goofball music was playing in the background, so I feared they were starting the night off with a joke, but then again he was so humble. The people they make fun of are rarely humble. The Korea native sang “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You” by Michael Bolton and he was wonderful and even a little soulful. Clearly he gets the ticket to Hollywood.
”You are crazy.” –Randy
Age 26 This guy is a born and raised performer, singing onstage with his family since he was two, so of course he’s going to be a complete and total ham. He sings the theme song from Family Matters because he’s just that cocky. It would seem he has license to be cocky because the guy can sing – and scat. He gets a golden ticket, so maybe we’ll get to see him sing the theme song from Full House next.
“She sings better when I’m planking.” –Patty the Pittsburgh Planker
Some woman who claims to be famous in Pittsburgh for planking attempts to steal her sister’s thunder by planking all over her audition. Patty even planks while her sister sings because she’s either insane or she thinks they’re beating the system and getting her sister more air time, which might be true. Good thing Samantha can actually sing. She does “Like I’ve Never Loved at All” by Faith Hill and it’s pretty, plain, and simple. She’s strong and Randy calls her voice pure, but I call it average. She gets a yes as Carrie Underwood’s “Flat on The Floor” plays in the background because the producers have been waiting to use that song in a literal sense and Patty The Planker answered their prayers.
“That was like Jamiroquai and Justin Timberlake had a baby?” –JLo
This jobless kid from New York spends time he could use to get a job singing silly songs in Union Square. So naturally, he spends 9 hours on a bus to get to Pittsburgh and audition for American Idol with a diddy he wrote on that same bus. He’s got serious pipes, but the tone is obnoxious and screechy, still they love him and he gets a ticket through to Hollywood. I fear he’s going to be the James Durbin of Season 11.
“He’s cute, look how cute he is.” –JLo
Apparently, all you have to do to “look like Justin Bieber” is get the right hair cut and be 15 years old with a decent singing voice. But, Eben is sweet and humble, calling the audition a privilege (you mean taking off days of school or work to audition for a singing contest that doesn’t guarantee financial success simply because you have a dream to sing is a luxury? Imagine that). I keep raining on this kid’s parade, but he was actually a pretty decent, sweet little singer. He tries out “Ain’t No Sunshine” and while he doesn’t really have the ability to give it any soul, he does pretty well. He gets a ticket to Hollywood.
“I dropped out of high school. This is an all or nothing thing.” –Travis Orlando
I can’t remember why Travis didn’t make it originally, but the judges insist his voice has gotten stronger, and that they need to hear more of what he’s got. But wait, you can’t dismiss him that easily; he’s got a sob story. His mother ditched his family and now he, his sick dad and his brother live in a shelter. His dad is on dialysis, his brother is in college and he quit high school to do Idol. Personally, I think that auditioning for a show that hasn’t turned out a real star in years instead of finishing one last year of high school is just a little misguided. Luckily for Travis, he gets a “yes.”
“Some kinda magic.” –Steven
Erica Van Pelt
This girl is a Mobile DJ and Wedding Singer, the first of which is a career I didn’t think was actually a thing. There are no gimmicks here, so let’s just get to the goods. She sings “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” and sounds a little Joss Stone. She does a little too much of the Christina Aguilera hand and matching head bob, but that usually dies out eventually. She also gets a yes, and continues the streak of winner after winner.
“You ever seen Shrek? I’m going to sing the Hallelujah song that plays right through there.” –Shane Bruce
But it had to end somewhere. Next we meet a young guy who actually likes working in a coal mine. They ruined the surprise of whether he was going to be able to sing or if he’d sound like a monkey being beaten with a feral cat by showing him singing to his work mates, but that doesn’t mean he’s good. He says he’s going to sing some song from Shrek - oh that “song from Shrek” that was written by Leonard Cohen and famously sung by Jeff Buckley and later Rufus Wainwright? His knowledge of music history isn’t the only fumble, he screws up the high notes in the song. Jennifer and Randy tell him to work on it and come back, but Steven tells him sometimes “routine is the secret of life” going on about how being a rock star is his path, but it isn’t for everyone else.
“Music and my husband saved my life.” –Hallie Day
The last contestant of the night is a waitress and a newlywed. She’s bubbly and blonde, so it seems this will be an easy little trip to yellow, crinkly paperville, but nope. She’s the last contestant, and typically these folks have terrible problems in their lives. She moved to New York at 15 to be in a girl group, but she ended up broke and drug addict. Her parents were absent, and the result was extremely low self esteem. She tried to commit suicide, but she lived and then met her husband, Ryan, who gave her the will to live. Normally, I’d say this is overkill, but it’s pretty hard to say a story like that is sensationalized. A story like that just is. She sings “I Will Survive” and while I appreciate the sentiment, the song choice was a little cheesy. Still, she’s a real singer with a strong, smoky voice. The judges all agree that she’s Idol material – and so do I.
All in all the judges handed out 38 tickets in Pittsburgh and snagged a potential winner. It’s a pretty good showing if you ask me. Who do you think was better, Savannah’s Phillip Phillips or Hallie Day? (I can certainly tell you which one has a better stage name.) Let me know in the comments or get at me on Twitter. @KelseaStahler